The U.S. will allow nearly 200,000 Salvadorans shielded from deportation under Temporary Protected Status an additional year to live and work legally in the country, following high-level negotiations between the two countries.
President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele announced the deal on Monday by posting a video on Twitter alongside U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Ronald Johnson.
Speaking in Spanish, Johnson said the agreement was signed in Washington and is "an acknowledgement of the achievements and the good work" of Bukele's government.
"They said it was impossible [to extend TPS]. That the Salvadoran government couldn't do anything. But we knew our allies wouldn't abandon us," Bukele tweeted. "We didn't want to share [the news] earlier because it could have hindered talks. But after all, thank God, TPS was achieved."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said work permits for Salvadorans — the largest TPS recipient group — will now be available through January 4, 2021.
According to the DHS statement, TPS holders from El Salvador will also be afforded "an additional 365 days after the conclusion of the TPS-related lawsuits to repatriate back to their home country."
DHS has not responded to VOA questions to clarify the court-related timeline.
It remains unclear when the 365 days would begin, since litigation remains ongoing, and whether work permits will be reauthorized from January 2021 until whenever the final date is.
The new end-date for TPS for Salvadorans will be January 2022, meaning a full two years added to the original end date of January 2020, according to a written statement from El Salvador's Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided to VOA's Spanish Service, as well as comments from the country's foreign minister at the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington on Monday.
El Salvador Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill said in the DHS statement that whether the later end-date for TPS is labeled an "extension" is a "technicality."
"Salvadorans are keeping their legal status, [and] can [continue] working and paying taxes," she told reporters.
The Trump administration announced an end to TPS for several countries, including El Salvador, in early 2018.
However, ongoing lawsuits and court orders delayed implementation slated for September of this year.
As a result of lawsuits, the end date was then pushed to Jan. 2, 2020, before Monday's announcement that another year would be added.
TPS is a humanitarian status accorded to nationals of some countries experiencing extreme hardship, like armed conflict or natural disaster.
El Salvador came under the program in March 2001 after a series of earthquakes rocked the country. Citizens in the U.S. at the time were able to apply for TPS.
An official from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, one of the federal agencies that oversees the TPS program, told VOA that Monday's agreement is not considered an extension to TPS, rather "an extension of the wind-down period during which work permits for Salvadoran nationals with TPS will be valid while they prepare to return to their home country."
Bukele said the agreement would give Salvadorans "extra time to look for a permanent solution" and promised to "keep working side by side [with the United States] to build a more prosperous El Salvador that is better for everyone."
Since TPS is not an immigration-based policy, there is no pathway to citizenship for anyone covered by it. Without the special status, individuals must either try the immigration route, for example through employment or marriage, or leave the country.
If they remain in the U.S. out of status after TPS expires, they would no longer receive work permits, are considered to be in the country illegally, and risk deportation.
"The Salvadorans protected by the TPS are admirable people, who have worked for 20 years to build a future of well-being…We will continue to work 24/7 for a permanent solution," Foreign Minister Hill said in the DHS statement.
DHS pinned Monday's agreement to border issues, saying in a statement that "a sudden inflow of 250,000 individuals to El Salvador could spark another mass migration to the U.S. and reinvigorate the crisis at the southern border."
Along with Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador's officials participated in months of discussions with Washington about migration and security, leading to several bilateral agreements, as the Trump administration attempts to curb the number of migrants arriving from — or passing through — Northern Triangle countries en route to the southwest U.S. border.
The U.S. and El Salvador signed a Cooperative Agreement on asylum in September.
The TPS deal is one of several signed between the countries in Washington on Monday, according to a DHS statement; others addressed "information sharing, border and aviation security, and international diplomacy."
"Today's agreements will significantly help the U.S. and our partners in El Salvador confront illegal migration and will strengthen the entire region as we approach the implementation of asylum cooperative agreements," said Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, who is in his last days as head of the agency.
McAleenan and Hill also signed a Border Security Arrangement, under which the U.S. will send officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to "advise and mentor their El Salvadoran national police, border security, immigration, and customs counterparts" on conducting criminal investigations and countering human trafficking and drug trafficking.
They also agreed to a Biometric Data Sharing Program Arrangement that expands biometric data collection and information sharing.
VOA Spanish service reporter Alejandra Arredondo contributed to this report from Washington.