The U.S. government will suspend a protection extended to some 262,500 citizens of El Salvador who have lived in the United States for nearly two decades, senior administration officials announced Monday morning.
Temporary Protected Status, which shielded hundreds of thousands of nationals from the Central American country from deportation following devastating earthquakes in 2001, will end Sept. 9, 2019.
On that day, those who have lived and worked legally in the United States for nearly two decades will revert to the immigration status they had before they received TPS, if it is still valid. They also have the option to apply for other immigration benefits, like family or work-based visas.
The decision will almost certainly leave some Salvadorans in an undocumented status, making them immediately vulnerable to deportation.
In a regularly-scheduled review of the conditions in El Salvador, the Trump administration determined that the country had recuperated enough from those natural disasters for its nationals in the United States to return, a senior administration official told journalists in a conference call Monday morning.
Despite previous extensions to TPS for Salvadorans that included a link between the natural disasters and the country’s struggle with organized crime and violence, the administration official said the Department of Homeland Security weighed only the “recovery” from the earthquakes, not “violence on the ground” in its assessment.
Officials on the call, as well as a written statement from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, indicated that the 18-month delay in ending TPS for Salvadorans “will allow Congress time to craft a potential legislative solution.”
Lawmakers have struggled for years to make substantive changes to the U.S. immigration system, however, and there is little indication on Capitol Hill that any new law would pass in time to salvage Salvadorans affected by Monday's decision.
President Donald Trump is hosting a bipartisan group of senators Tuesday to discuss immigration.
The New York-based Center for Migration Studies said the Salvadorans represent more than 135,000 households, with 88 percent of them in the U.S. workforce.
About a quarter of them live in the west coast state of California and another fifth in the Washington, D.C., area.
Most of the Salvadorans have learned English and about 10 percent of them have married U.S. citizens.
Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, told VOA the Trump administration’s El Salvador decision "creates nothing but losers," chiefly for the beneficiaries themselves and their U.S. employers. He said many Salvadorans work in construction.
Moreover, Kerwin said, "El Salvador has said they cannot safely accommodate them. A lot will be victimized if they return" to violence-plagued communities in the Central American nation "without good economic prospects."
He added the decision also could break up many families. Salvadorans protected by TPS have become parents to an estimated 192,700 U.S.-born children since entering the country, all of whom automatically became U.S. citizens by birthright; that citizenship is not immediately or automatically conferred to their parents, however.
Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for a merit-based immigration system and an overall cut in immigration, said it is time for the Salvadorans to "honor their commitment" and return home, and that the process should not have gone on this long.
"We should not allow that to happen because in the long run what it is going to do is prevent us from offering similar benefits to other nationalities in the future," he said.
Largest group of TPS holders
Salvadorans - by far the largest group of TPS holders - are the latest casualty in the Trump administration's cuts to the program.
In recent months, DHS declined to renew the special status for Haiti (which will expire July 22, 2019), Nicaragua (which will expire Jan. 5, 2019), and Sudan (which will expire Nov. 2, 2018).
Several more announcements for the remaining six countries covered by TPS are expected in 2018.
Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report