The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Monday that it will end special protections for U.S. residents from El Salvador, forcing nearly 200,000 people to leave the country, find another way to achieve legal residency or face deportation.
El Salvador is the fourth country whose citizens have lost Temporary Protected Status (TPS) under President Donald Trump. They have by far been the largest beneficiaries of the program, which provides humanitarian relief for foreigners whose countries are hit with natural disasters or other strife.
The Washington, D.C. area has the largest number of TPS holders from El Salvador, at more than 32,000, according to an April 2017 report from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an advocacy group.
A small group of protesters chanted "Shame on you, Donald Trump" outside the White House after DHS made the announcement.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser defended the city's Salvadorans and slammed the Trump administration's decision.
“Salvadorans who came to the United States under Temporary Protected Status are our friends, colleagues and neighbors. They are teachers, business owners and nurses. This decision will in no way make Americans safer, stronger or more prosperous," she said in a statement.
"The lives of thousands of people are at stake, and in Washington, D.C., we will continue to fight for, protect and defend Salvadoran immigrants, many of whom have lived in this country legally for nearly two decades. Today, thousands of families will worry about being torn apart because of this callous and irrational decision, but we will continue looking for solutions that keep our families together and our residents safe," she continued.
City officials say they will hold a session with legal information on Jan. 20.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said she will introduce a bill this week to make TPS holders from El Salvador permanent U.S. residents and allow them to apply for citizenship within five years.
She called Salvadorans a "pillar of our regional economy."
“Deporting tens of thousands of individuals to a country still grappling with widespread violence would tear families apart and do significant harm to our economy," Norton said in a statement.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, TPS holder Nancy Vasquez told News4 the decision would separate her from her 12-year-old daughter. After nearly 20 years in the U.S., she said she would move back to El Salvador and send her daughter to live in D.C. with the child's uncle.
“She needs me because she’s only 12 years old,” Vasquez said, her voice rising. “She needs more of her mom. Her uncle is her uncle. He’s not her mom. I’m her mom. Yo soy su mama.”
Montgomery County resident Jose "Freddy" Monge, a construction worker, said he didn't know what he, his wife, his 14-year-old son and his 10-year-old son would do.
"I can't take them back to my country because there's no future in my country for them," he said.
Salvadorans will have until September 9, 2019 to leave the United States or, if eligible, file the necessary paperwork to remain in the U.S. legally," a senior administration official told reporters on a call previewing the announcement.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen faced a Monday deadline on whether to grant an extension to TPS, which the U.S. granted after earthquakes struck the Central American country in 2001.
"Based on careful consideration of available information, including recommendations received as part of an inter-agency consultation process, the Secretary determined that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist. Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated," DHS said in a statement issued Monday.
Nielsen, who was tasked with making the decision, told The Associated Press last week that short-term extensions are not the answer.
"Getting them to a permanent solution is a much better plan than having them live six months, to 12 months to 18 months," she said in an interview, referring to the uncertainty of short-term extensions.
The decision to force Salvadorans back to their native country is expected to send shivers through Washington, Los Angeles, New York, Houston and other metropolitan areas that are home to large numbers of Salvadorans. Many have established deep roots in the U.S., starting families and businesses over decades.
TPS does not provide beneficiaries with a path to lawful permanent residence or citizenship. However, a U.S. citizen can petition for a family member who is a TPS recipient to become a lawful permanent resident. According to the USCIS, a husband or wife can petition for their spouse, parents can petition for their children and children over the age of 21 may petition for parents or siblings. TPS recipients may also be eligible to apply for a green card as an immigrant worker sponsored by an employer or as a Special Immigrant, such as a member of a religious denomination coming to the U.S. to work for a nonprofit religious organization, among other paths.
Ending the protections represents a serious challenge for El Salvador, a country of 6.2 million people whose economy depends on remittances from wage-earners in the U.S. Over the last decade, growing numbers of Salvadorans -- many coming as families or unaccompanied children -- have entered the United States illegally through Mexico, fleeing violence and poverty.
The State Department describes El Salvador as violent and categorizes it as a critical-threat location for crime directed at or affecting U.S. government interests.
"Crimes of every type routinely occur, and crime is unpredictable, gang-centric and characterized by violence directed against both known victims and targets of opportunity," a warning says.
In September 2016, the Obama administration extended protections for 18 months, saying El Salvador suffered lingering harm from the 2001 earthquakes that killed more than 1,000 people and would be unable to absorb such a large wave of people returning.
Immigration advocates have argued that the conditions in El Salvador are still too violent and impoverished for those on temporary protected status to return.
A senior administration official said the Trump administration did not consider the gang-related violence in El Salvador when deciding to end the protected status, only that the country has recovered from the 2001 earthquakes.
Nielsen said Monday that damage inflicted by a 2001 earthquake in the Central American country didn't justify another temporary extension. She says that El Salvador has received significant international aid and that much of the country's infrastructure is rebuilt.
El Salvador's President Salvador Sanchez Ceren spoke at length by phone with Nielsen on Friday to renew his request to extend the status to allow more time for Congress to deliver a long-term fix for those covered to stay in the U.S.
The deadline comes amid intensifying talks between the White House and Congress on an immigration package that may include protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who came to the country as children and were temporarily shielded from deportation under an Obama-era program. Trump said in September that he was ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals but gave Congress until March to act.
Trump is expected to host a bipartisan group of senators at the White House this week to try to hash out a deal.
The U.S. created Temporary Protected Status in 1990 to provide a haven from countries affected by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, war and other disasters. It currently shields nearly 320,000 people from 10 countries. There are nearly 440,000 beneficiaries from the 10 countries, including 263,000 from El Salvador — but many of those people have obtained legal status in other ways.
The benefit, which includes work authorization, can be renewed up to 18 months at a time by the Homeland Security secretary. Critics say it has proven anything but temporary — with many beneficiaries staying years after the initial justification applies.
In November, Nielsen's predecessor, acting Secretary Elaine Duke, ended protections for Haitians, requiring about 50,000 to leave or adjust their legal status by July 22, 2019, and for Nicaraguans, giving about 2,500 until Jan. 5, 2019. She delayed a decision affecting more than 50,000 Hondurans, forcing a decision on Nielsen.
Last year, the Trump administration extended status for South Sudan and ended it for Sudan. Other countries covered are Nepal, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.