Less than four months into Trump’s presidency, the administration began its attacks on Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a long-standing program created as part of the 1990 Immigration Act that protects otherwise undocumented immigrants from being deported to countries that the White House may designate as unable to safely repatriate their citizens due to devastation by natural disaster, armed conflict, or other emergency circumstances.
The majority of the beneficiaries are from Central America, including hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who arrived to the United States in the 1990s as a result of the lasting impact of a twelve-year armed conflict (1980-1992), in which U.S.-backed forces killed over 75,000 civilians. Meanwhile, post-war neoliberal structural adjustment programs led to skyrocketing poverty and inequality.
After a series of hurricanes and earthquakes devastated Central America in between 1998 and 2001, the government granted TPS to undocumented immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua and permitted them to apply for work visas. Over the years, a number of other countries with populations living in the U.S. have been granted TPS, including Haiti, Nepal, and Syria. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there are over 420,000 immigrants in the U.S. with TPS today.
Under current legislation, the U.S. government must evaluate conditions on the ground and renew its designation every 18 months. Due to varied and ongoing difficulties in the region, not to mention the approximately $120 million annually in U.S. revenue that application and work permit fees generate, the U.S. has continuously maintained the designation for all three countries, giving hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents the ability to live and work with relative safety from deportation.
Remittances sent home to families in their country of origin are often a lifeline in otherwise grim economic circumstances and, totaling about, have become a vital national economic pillar. Between El Salvador ($4.0 billion), Honduras ($3.3 billion), and Haiti ($1.34 billion), for example, remittances in 2016 totaled over $8.5 billion.
Unsurprisingly, TPS permits immigrants to obtain better jobs and higher wages as compared to Salvadorans who are not eligible for TPS and are undocumented. Dr. Cecilia Menjívar’s study of TPS holders from El Salvador and Honduras found that 88% participate in the labor force and 30% have mortgages. More importantly, Salvadoran, Honduran, and Haitian TPS holders are parents to 273,000 U.S.-citizen children.
However, the benefits the U.S. reaps from TPS are not limited to economic, social, cultural, and political contributions from this diverse cross-section of immigrants. The U.S. has in many cases also gained and maintained the political upper-hand over their countries of origin. According to Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute, under the Administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, TPS “came to be understood as a symbol of friendship and support.”
But a symbol of friendship can, of course, cut both ways. By preventing TPS holders from applying for permanent residency, through many would otherwise meet the criteria, the U.S. holds the power not to renew a TPS designation and thereby threaten other nations with the deportation of their citizens.
TPS as a Political Weapon for the Salvadoran Right Wing
El Salvador is the country with the largest population of TPS holders, 263,000 people, or roughly the equivalent of 4% of El Salvador’s entire population of 6.3 million people. Each president and presidential candidate over the past sixteen years has felt pressure to prove to voters that their family members in the U.S. will be safe, thereby giving the U.S. another tool to maintain dominance over their internal political and economic affairs.
El Salvador’s right-wing party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) exploited this implicit threat during successive administrations, holding up TPS as a benefit of a good relationship with the United States that would be lost should the leftist Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) come to power, as an extension of the U.S. government’s brutal attacks against the FMLN guerrilla forces during the civil war.
ARENA’s most aggressive abuse of TPS for political gain was in 2004, during its effective smear campaign against FMLN presidential candidate Schafik Hándal. ARENA ran commercials with messages like, “2.5 million Salvadorans in the U.S. depend on the good relations of our government with this country, and what does the U.S. government think about the FMLN? Don’t let Schafik cause harm to our distant brothers. Reject the FMLN.”
Two days before the election, Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo proposed legislation to limit the roughly $2 billion a year in remittances sent back to El Salvador by immigrants in the U.S. if the FMLN were to win. While the bill had a negligible chance of passing in Congress, this blatantly interventionist measure made front page news in El Salvador. ARENA’s candidate, media mogul Tony Saca, won the election. His party went on to engineer the expansion of the mano dura (iron fist) anti-gang policies that are widely-understood to have exacerbated violence and crime in the country, while pursuing continued privatization of public resources like water.
Five years later, before the 2009 Presidential elections, the right-wing pulled the same tricks. The El Salvador branch of Fuerza Solidaria, a Venezuelan-based right wing organization determined to stop the proliferation of progressive governments in Latin America, launched scare ads claiming that an FMLN victory would make El Salvador an official enemy of the United States. This designation would mean an end of cash remittances from the U.S. and uncertainty for the legal status of Salvadorans there.
However, advocacy groups in the U.S. were successful in pressuring President Obama’s State Department to release an unprecedented neutrality statement in advance of the election. The U.S. Embassy in El Salvador made explicitly clear that neither TPS nor remittances would be affected by who won the election, stripping ARENA of its empty—but effective—threat, at least temporarily.
A Real Threat to TPS
Until General John Kelly began his brief tenure as Secretary of Homeland Security, no presidential administration appeared to have paid much mind to TPS, a relatively small-scale program, since its inception. Under the Trump presidency, for the first time, the White House, driven by its all-out racist war on immigrants, seems willing to let go of a useful diplomatic tool, while also causing irreparable harm to families, communities, and nations alike.
After initially threatening to cancel TPS for Haiti when the designation period expired in July 2017, then- Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly announced in May that Haitians, who received TPS in 2010 after an earthquake killed 316,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more, would only have six more months—until January 2018—to “attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States.” As U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Mourad Wahba told the World Post earlier this year, “There are still about 55,000 people in camps and makeshift camps … Many are still living in unsanitary conditions due to displacement caused by the earthquake. We have a very long way to go.”
The Haitian community is pushing back, joined by allies in the labor movement and immigrant and refugee rights organizations. As executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, Marleine Bastien, told the Miami Herald, “We wish for the business community to support our campaign because, as you can imagine, 80 percent of TPS-holders are working. They are our teachers, professors, business owners.”
DHS’ announcements have sent shockwaves through Central America as renewal dates approach: January 5, 2018 for Nicaragua and Honduras, March 9, 2018 for El Salvador. These countries have sent foreign diplomats to plead their case and bringing a diverse group of U.S.-based and international organizations together to fight for extension. On August 24th, El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez made a formal request to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to extend TPS for Salvadorans for another 18 months. Martínez and a multi-partisan delegation of elected officials from El Salvador came to Washington in September to meet with Administration officials and members of Congress to advocate for an extension.
The necessity of protecting its citizens puts left-wing governments like the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in a political bind. They must demonstrate to the U.S. that the situation on the ground remains dire and that the country cannot safely repatriate people who are deported, which in the case of El Salvador is absolutely true. In an economy with a 62% rate of un- and under-employment and one of the highest murder rates in the world at 109 per 100,000, increasing its population by approximately 4% would put an impossible strain on the densely-populated country, not to mention to economic impact of losing remittances.
This will also make it more difficult for El Salvador to share its significant accomplishments— from implementing a prevention-based approach to crime to deep investments in universal health care and public education—that are beginning to turn the tide toward greater equality, stability and quality of life in the country. Continuing to be painted as a place of crisis has also made El Salvador vulnerable to continued U.S. intervention, most recently through the Inter-American Development Bank-fueled Alliance for Prosperity.
With TPS at the intersection of foreign policy and immigration, collaboration has grown among immigrant rights organizations, refugee service organizations and foreign policy organizations to save TPS with support from many Congressional offices. In July, 42 senators sent a letter to President Trump calling for the protection of DACA. In September, a bipartisan group of 116 Members of Congress sent a similar letter imploring Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke to extend TPS for Honduras and El Salvador.
But perhaps the most important responses to the administration’s threat has come from TPS holders themselves, who, with the help of leading organizations within Central America diaspora, including the National Day Laborers Organizing Network and the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, have formed the National TPS Alliance. TPS holders are organizing local committees in cities and states as far reaching as Houston, Nebraska and Colorado. For many TPS holders, who have counted on the relative security of their immigration status, this is a new foray into the organizing world, following a path paved by hundreds of thousands of courageous undocumented immigrants who came out of the shadows to demand justice.
Beyond the immediate need to renew current TPS designations, the National TPS Alliance is organizing to bring the community’s bigger demands to the forefront: a pathway to residency and citizenship. TPS holders are currently denied the ability to petition for spouses or family members, unable to heal the wounds of family separation that they and millions of other immigrants who have been denied a pathway to residency and citizenship have suffered. The Alliance believes that “Now, more than ever, it is important to bring together and unite the entire TPS community to advocate for greater protections, including, but not limited to, TPS.”
Back in El Salvador
But the potential implications of the DHS’s upcoming decisions on TPS and whether Congress can reach a long-term solution go far beyond the impact on families and communities, veering straight again into El Salvador’s elections.
El Salvador’s current TPS designation expires just days after legislative and municipal elections will determine how much of his agenda current FMLN President Salvador Sánchez Cerén can accomplish in his last year in office. DHS is expected to make its announcement on January 9, 60 days prior to the expiration date.
Exploiting the population’s fears, ARENA has seized upon the opportunity to deal a political blow to the FMLN. Falsely claiming that ending TPS would be political punishment against El Salvador for having elected a leftist government, the right-wing has revived its long-standing tradition of exploiting the plight of Salvadoran migrants to score political points.
In August, the Trump administration ended the Central American Minors (CAM) Program, an Obama-era initiative that granted conditional admission to Central American children fleeing violence if they had a documented parent living in the U.S. Right-wing politicians and pundits in El Salvador quickly hit the airwaves, claiming that the program had been cancelled due to the FMLN’s continued support for the Venezuelan government at the Organization of American States, ignoring the fact that cancelling the CAM program also affects Honduras, which has faithfully that have supported the U.S.’s aggression against the democratically-elected government of Venezuela. ARENA legislator Margarita de Escobar, currently under investigation for corruption, insinuated that the CAM decision would also play out badly for TPS, accusing the FMLN of having “no friends in Washington.”
After DACA was canceled the following month, ARENA party president Mauricio Interiano accused the FMLN government for jeopardizing potential solutions for DACA recipients because of its relationship with Venezuela.
Despite widespread understanding in the United States that ending TPS is a way for Trump to appeal to his anti-immigrant base, ARENA’s savvy media manipulation is taking its toll in El Salvador. The right-wing newspaper El Diario de Hoy conducted a poll showing that despite majority support for the FMLN in the upcoming March 2018 legislative and municipal elections, 63% of those surveyed said that they believe that “actions and statements” by the government of El Salvador are affecting U.S. economic aid to El Salvador as well as the renewal of TPS.
The ability for political parties and governments to exploit the TPS population for electoral or political gain, or for the U.S. to continue to lord TPS over less-powerful governments, is a problem a pathway to permanent residency can solve—if Congress can be moved to act.
Cristian Izquierdo studies International Affairs at the George Washington University. His research focuses on the impact of Mexican border militarization on Central American migrants. He is currently an intern at the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).