‘Our lives have come to a halt’: Trump ends deportation protection for 200,000 Salvadorans

"The conditions on the ground is really what we look at."

Advocates take to the streets in Washington, D.C. in October 2017 to call on Congress to help Temporary Protected Status (TPS) beneficiaries. (CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee)
Advocates take to the streets in Washington, D.C. in October 2017 to call on Congress to help Temporary Protected Status (TPS) beneficiaries. (CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee)

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has terminated temporary legal protections for roughly 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants, many of whom have lived in the United States since a pair of earthquakes devastated El Salvador in 2001.

The Trump administration will end the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program for Salvadorans by September 9, 2019, giving recipients the chance to reregister and renew their current status to live and work in the United States through one final 18-month extension. The current TPS designation for Salvadorans expires on March 9, 2018.

Since the 1990s, TPS has provided legal protections on a temporary basis for people fleeing dire conditions like war, violence, or natural disasters. Roughly 262,500 Salvadorans have been approved for TPS after it became the first country to receive the designation because of civil war in 1990. About 16 percent of the current Salvadoran population in the United States are TPS holders, many of whom are parents to roughly 200,000 U.S. citizen children.

The first TPS designation for El Salvador expired in 1992, but country conditions did not improve, so those original TPS recipients were granted “deferred enforcement departure” through 1995. In its latest designation, the United States granted TPS to Salvadorans in 2001 after two earthquakes hit the country that year. Temporary in nature, the status has been extended in roughly 18-month increments by both Republican and Democratic administrations.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen determined that circumstances resulting from the 2001 earthquakes “no longer exist,” senior White House administration officials said on a press call Monday about the program’s termination. A senior administration official pointed out that the decision was made in part because El Salvador received a number of repatriated Salvadoran immigrants last year; that reconstruction projects have been completed in El Salvador, including hospitals and schools; and that other infrastructure needs have been repaired.

“The conditions on the ground is really what we look at,” a senior administration official said on background. He added that TPS beneficiaries should look to arrange for their departure or find other immigration avenues to “apply for any other status for which they’d be independently qualified for.”

Cristian Chavez Guevara, a 37-year-old Salvadoran TPS holder who lives in Houston, Texas with his U.S. citizen wife and stepchildren, was distraught by the DHS announcement. He has worked in the IT industry for years, using the money he has earned to provide for his family, including a young cousin whose parents were deported.

“We are not illegal — we have a legal status,” Chavez Guevara said on a press call on Monday.  “Our lives have come to a halt.”

The end of the TPS program comes with few surprises given the Trump administration’s erosion of legal pathways that allow immigrants to stay and work in the country. Last year, Trump dissolved the TPS program for Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians, leaving 250,000 people to figure out their affairs before they have to leave the country.

White House administration officials may say “conditions on the ground” have improved enough to return TPS holders, but the reality is that poverty and violence continue to drive people out of El Salvador. The country has historically been one of the deadliest countries, often holding the grim distinction as the murder capital of the world. And one in five families claim to have been victims of violent crimes, according to a 2016 CID Gallup poll cited by the State Department. What’s more, senior administration officials may say that they consulted with the State Department to terminate TPS, but the State Department itself issued a travel advisory last February warning U.S. citizens to consider “the risks of travel to El Salvador due to the high rates of crime and violence.”

Advocates also worry that there could be a ripple effect if this population of Salvadorans are deported, given that remittances, or money sent home to El Salvador, make up 17 percent of the country’s GDP.

“The effects will not just affect their families, but their employers and communities that rely on them,” Royce Murray, the policy director at the American Immigration Council, said on a press call Monday. She explained that these Salvadorans have lived in the country for so long that many workers are now in supervisory roles and have skills that are much needed by their employers. As Murray indicated, TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti are employed at high rates in various industries like construction, restaurant and food services, landscaping services, child care, and grocery stores.