The Honduran family after applying for refugee status in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula. UNHCR / M. Echandi / May 2011

What it Means that Hundreds of Thousands of Salvadorians Will Lose Their “Temporary Protective Status” in the US

This week the Trump administration announced it is revoking the temporary status held by hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, setting a deadline of 2019 for their deportation. The move highlights yet another gap in the current US immigration system, where the reality of the system can give vulnerable immigrants hope only to have it arbitrarily taken away. It also shows how Temporary Protective Status is an end run around international law when it comes to granting refuge to asylum seekers.

Temporary Protection Status (TPS) dates back to the Immigration Act of 1990 which gave the US Attorney General the ability to grant temporary status to immigrants from certain countries already in the US who due to extraordinary events, could not safely return to their home country at that time. The most common reasons for TPS designation is the onset of armed conflict, natural disasters, or the immediate period of post-war rebuilding where the home country likely is not in a position to accept an immigrants return. An example may be a foreign student who was in the US on a student visa, only to have a civil war break out in her country while in school. The student cannot stay in the US indefinitely on a student visa once she finishes her studies, so if that country is given TPS designation, she can apply for a TPS visa which gives her the ability to legally live and work in the US until conditions improve in her home country.

In theory, this is a humanitarian gesture towards immigrants who unexpectedly find themselves in dire circumstances due to events back home. But in practice, the TPS system has become something a bit more politically fraught.

Unlike refugee status or the granting of asylum, a TPS visa does not grant permanent residency or a path to citizenship. But by giving immigrants a temporary but not time limited status, the TPS system can work as an executive workaround to avoid granting asylum or permanent status to immigrants from certain countries such as Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. Even though a TPS recipient can change their status, in practice being a TPS recipient can severely limit an immigrant’s options. Also, while supposedly temporary, some countries have retained TPS designation for decades, leading to new questions about the viability of granting this limbo status to hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

What is the Trump administration doing?

Again, the most important aspect of TPS is its temporary nature. Countries are added and dropped from the list, with the US government reviewing designations regularly. But countries who have been on the list for several years are often very fragile states and usually stay that way. Despite being a non-permanent status, the longer a country is on the list, the more time given to people to build lives in the US.

Thus, when the Trump administration announced that it was terminating TPS designation for Haiti and Nicaragua – two long standing TPS countries – in November, it came as a major shock to these communities. But this week’s announcement that El Salvador is joining them is significant, both for the size of the Salvadoran TPS community and the length of time they have been here.

Of the current TPS countries, El Salvador has been on the list since 2001, one of the longest countries with TPS designation. It also has the largest TPS community, estimated at more than 200,000 with 80 percent unlikely to be able to change their status and now facing deportation. Even though the decision gives TPS immigrants 18 months to arrange their departure, for people who have been here on average for more than 20 years, the decision is still a difficult one to accept.

For other TPS recipients, the writing is now on the wall. Most critically is the issue of Honduras, a TPS designated country since 1999 with more than 86,000 people benefiting. In November, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke requested additional information before changing Honduras’s status, but after Nicaragua and now El Salvador, there is not much hope that Hondurans will be granted a stay of deportation.

Trump’s actions to strip TPS designation, first from Nicaragua and Haiti, and now El Salvador, reveal the serious problems with the TPS system in general.

It also raises questions about what these people are being returned to. Although El Salvador may have recovered from the devastation of the 2001 earthquake that originally gave the country its TPS designation, in the years since high levels of violence due to drug trafficking and street gangs have overtaken El Salvador and its neighbors. The violence has filled the US immigration system with Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans requesting asylum and is the driving force behind the arrival of unaccompanied children to the US from the region. Since 2010, the government of Guatemala itself has requested to be added to the list of TPS countries because of the violence, figuring that the best way to protect its citizens is by keeping them out of the country.

Some US lawmakers have petitioned DHS for TPS designation for El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala on the basis of the drug violence. Instead, by revoking the current protections Salvadorans have, the US is pushing 200,000 people who have lived in the US for decades into this turmoil.

In November, lawmakers introduced the Safe Environment from Countries Under Repression and in Emergency (SECURE) Act which would allow eligible TPS recipients become permanent residents. This would address the reality of the semi-permanent nature of TPS for some recipients. But there are many who would like to do away with TPS altogether and see the recent terminations by the Trump administration as a step in the right direction.

It is clear that the TPS system is not sustainable as it stands now. When announcing the termination of TPS status for Nicaragua, Acting Secretary Duke called on Congress to enact a permanent solution for TPS recipients who have been here far beyond the supposed temporary nature of the program. Long standing TPS recipients such as those from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Haiti are thoroughly integrated into American society, often owning homes and businesses and with US citizen children. The lack of a path for permanent residency and citizenship limits their rights, even while spending decades building lives in the US. As immigration becomes a red button issue again in Congress, it is important to address the needs of those who are already here