The Trump administration is ending a special immigration status for about 200,000 Salvadorans who were allowed to live and work legally in the United States since the 2001 earthquakes that killed 1,100 people and displaced more than 1 million.
The Homeland Security Department said the conditions in El Salvador that had been used to justify the special protections, known as Temporary Protective Status, are no longer applicable. The benefit will be extended 18 more months until September 2019, to give Salvadorans time to prepare to return home.
When announcing the change, a senior administration official said that many of the recovery projects started after the earthquakes were over and the economy was improving.
“Damaged schools and hospitals have been reconstructed and repaired,” the official said. “Homes have been rebuilt and money has been provided for water and sanitation and to repair damaged roads and other infrastructure.”
Salvadorans are the largest group of TPS recipients. The decision to end the protection’s program is “perhaps one of its most consequential and weighty immigration decisions to date,” according to the American Immigration Council, a Washington-based advocacy group.
The Trump administration said any TPS holders, including children, would revert to their previous status. If someone married a U.S. citizen, they can apply for new protections, but they must be here legally. And many of these individuals will lose their status in September 2019.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that only Congress can legislate a permanent solution for those currently protected by TPS and that the delay will allow Congress time to craft a potential legislative solution.
"We look forward to working with them," said a senior administration official.
Advocates quickly condemned what they described as a “reckless and inhumane” decision.
“Needlessly ripping protection away from the largest group of TPS recipients in the United States will tear families apart and have dire consequences for our economy,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Nearly 400 faith leaders sent a letter to Nielsen urging her to consider security conditions in El Salvador and the risks of forcing so many thousands of families back to one of the most violent places in the world.
“As people of faith, we implore you to think about the moral imperative to love our neighbor, welcome the sojourner, and care for the most vulnerable among us,” they wrote.
In 2016, El Salvador registered 81.7 homicides per 100,000 residents, one of the highest murder rates anywhere in the world. The United Nations reports that gangs continue to dominate people through threats, intimidation and “a culture of violence” that infects entire communities and every day interactions.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., called on the administration to reconsider its decisions. He said while conditions may have slightly improved since the earthquake, El Salvador now faces a significant problem with drug trafficking, gangs and crime.
“It would be devastating to send them home after they have created a humble living for themselves and their families,” Diaz-Balart said.
Sen. Bob Menendez. D-N.J., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted the decision as one “driven by nativist impulses.”
“As we repeatedly warned the White House in our calls for careful considerations for Temporary Protected Status designations, all one needs to do is take a look at the conditions on the ground in El Salvador to understand that ending this program and ordering the return of TPS holders will likely destabilize their fragile recovery efforts and put hundreds of thousands of individuals in harm’s way," Menendez said.
The senior administration official said that TPS is based only on the factors that apply to the 2001 earthquakes and the recovery efforts since then and not to the current conditions.
“Anything else doesn’t really apply there, including potential violence on the ground,” the official said.
The decision was largely expected after the Trump administration announced the end of the Temporary Protected Status for as many of 59,000 Haitians who had been living and working in Miami and around the United States since the devastating 2010 earthquake that left more than 300,000 dead.
Trump also ended temporary permit programs for Sudan and Nicaragua. But he postponed a decision on how to deal with a similar program for 86,000 residents from Honduras.