Salvadorans are the largest group of foreigners to benefit from Temporary Protection Status (TPS), a humanitarian program created by Congress in 1990 to allow populations suffering from war or catastrophe to live and work in United States. The Secretary of Homeland Security has the power to extend TPS protection as a result of ongoing violent conflict, environmental disasters, or other “extraordinary or temporary conditions”. In 2018, the Trump administration ended TPS for Salvadorans, leaving the community forced to choose between returning home or risking deportation.
Now, nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, many of whom have lived in the United States for over a decade, must leave the country by 2019 unless they can find another protection program. Most Salvadorans came to the U.S. in 2001, the year El Salvador was hit by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that left thousands dead or homeless. Due to a lack of government funds, the rebuilding process stalled, and it took several years to rebuild damaged roads, buildings, water systems, and hospitals. Thanks to international assistance, most infrastructure has since been restored, allowing Washington to claim that TPS is no longer justified.
Yet major problems remain. El Salvador’s path to stability is thwarted by gang violence, corruption, and low economic growth. The violence stems from conflict between MS-13 and Barrio 18, two rival gangs who trace their origins to the United States. In the 1990s, civil war led thousands of Salvadorans to flee to the United States. Salvadoran gangs formed in California as self-defense groups. Following a deportation program by the U.S. government, these fully formed gangs returned to El Salvador, where low police presence and a lack of reintegration programs led to further violence. Gang presence has since grown, and El Salvador has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world as a result. This trend has only been exacerbated by the mass-migration of unaccompanied minors throughout Central America. If forced to return to El Salvador, mothers, fathers, and children could face extortion, rising gang violence, kidnappings, coerced service to gangs and sexual violence.
The mass return of Salvadorans would also lead to economic harms. Salvadorans in the US currently act as a source of economic growth for their home country through the remittances they send home every year. The Salvadoran economy is too weak to provide employment or resources needed to sustain returnees. While the unemployment rate is at 7%, more than 40% of workers are underemployed and 66% work in the informal sector. Despite having an annual workforce entry rate of 60,000, the economy only creates 11,000 jobs a year. The entry of so many returnees would displace less skilled Salvadorans, increasing poverty and risking greater violence and immigration.
Ending TPS for Salvadorans will also damage the American economy. There are few Americans willing to take jobs currently held by Salvadorans in the service, construction, and child care industries. A study by the Immigrant and Legal Resource Center found that stripping Haitians, Salvadorans, and Hondurans of their TPS status would, over 10 years, deprive Social Security and Medicare of $6.9 billion and shrink GDP by $45.2 billion. Ending this humanitarian protection program would cost employers billions in turnover costs and reduce government revenue for social programs.
Finally, this policy will damage thousands of Salvadoran families who would be torn apart. Economic opportunities for Salvadorans and their children would be limited after stripping away their work permits, leaving most children to live in poverty without the economic support from their parents. Children born with in the US would be separated from their parents. Those who stay illegally risk abuse at the hands of their employers.
Ending TPS for Salvadorans risks tearing apart families, exposing them to violence, and generating economic harms. Salvadorans with TPS status consider the United States to be their home. Knowing very little about the current state of their home country, they would seem like foreigners in their own country. The Trump administration should extend the TPS program while working with the Salvadoran government to stabilize the country.