- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2018

Salvadorans living in the U.S. are, by most accounts, devoted workers with high workforce participation rates and better-than-average education levels compared with their countrymen still living in El Salvador.

That makes it all the more surprising that the Salvadoran government is working desperately to try to make sure hundreds of thousands of them never come back home, where they could be of huge help to rebuilding a troubled society.

But those people are worth more to the Salvadoran government if they are working in the U.S., earning American wages and sending the cash back home — $4.6 billion a year, accounting for a staggering 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

El Salvador is the latest government to plead with the U.S. to keep its citizens, arguing that they have become integral parts of the American economy.

The fight is over about 200,000 Salvadorans in the U.S. under temporary protected status, a special humanitarian designation that allows people who otherwise lack permission to be in the U.S. to remain after a major disaster, war or other problem makes returning home unwise.

The intent was to give countries a chance to recover without having to accommodate more returning citizens. But for many countries, constant renewals have turned the TPS program into a de facto immigration policy.

Salvadorans have been in the U.S. under TPS since a 2001 earthquake. Tens of thousands of Hondurans and Nicaraguans have been under a TPS that dates back nearly 20 years, to just after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Now, El Salvador is sweating as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen decides whether to end TPS for the 200,000. A decision is due by early next week, and activists are pulling out all the stops to try to persuade her to let the Salvadorans stay.

“I’ve been here for 20 years. I came when I was 9 years old,” Karla Alvarado, a Salvadoran TPS holder from Philadelphia, said on a Thursday conference call sponsored by activist groups. “I was the first person in my family to go to college. I am pleading for people to look at the bigger picture — get in touch with your humanity. This is tearing families apart.”

The Salvadoran government has made a bold pitch as well, with Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez meeting with Ms. Nielsen last month to argue that the Salvadorans are making major contributions to the U.S. and deserve to stay.

“Recent surveys showcase the preference of U.S. business hiring Salvadoran workforce due to its high level of productivity and medium levels of education,” the government said in a memo arguing its case. Mr. Martinez also told Ms. Nielsen that El Salvador is committed to cutting the flow of migrants.

But Andrew R. Arthur, a former immigration judge and now resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said El Salvador’s interest is chiefly its own economy: The country has developed an economic dependency on the cash, known as remittances, flowing from the U.S.

For El Salvador, the flow of remittances has grown from 13 percent of its GDP before the earthquake to more than 17 percent, according to World Bank figures. For Honduras, it has gone from less than 5 percent before Hurricane Mitch to nearly 18 percent.

“Theoretically the calculus that’s being done by the Salvadoran government is the amount of money being sent by these individuals in remittances is greater than the amount of money they would earn” should they return home, Mr. Arthur said.

He said that is unfortunate because El Salvador could see major benefits from a workforce that has benefited from American training and education, American health care and American values, such as respect for the rule of law.

“You’re talking about a group of individuals who would be able to contribute right away to the Salvadoran economy,” Mr. Arthur said. “Moreover, most of these people have connections to the United States and would be able to help bring additional commerce into El Salvador, and to help to boost Salvadoran exports to the United States, which would boost their GDP.”

But a wide array of immigration advocacy groups are applying intense pressure to keep the Salvadorans in the U.S.

Business interests say losing the workers would damage the U.S. economy. The Essential Worker Immigration Coalition ran an ad in The Washington Times on Wednesday saying the construction industry is counting on Salvadorans to provide labor for recovery efforts after hurricanes along the Gulf of Mexico and wildfires in California.

Religious groups are also active. The Roman Catholic bishop in El Paso, Texas, penned an op-ed saying TPS families would have to face “heartbreaking decisions” over whether to leave their 190,000 U.S. citizen children behind or take them to worse conditions back home. The Evangelical Immigration Table ran an ad in The Washington Times on Thursday making the same points.

Mark Drury, a construction company executive in Maryland, speaking on a conference call sponsored by immigrant rights groups Wednesday, said his business has a number of people from El Salvador on its payroll.

“These are productive members of society who are paying taxes, who are shopping and buying. They’re getting paychecks, they’re having children. I mean they have children who are citizens, and we’re talking about deporting them,” Mr. Drury said.

“We could hire 40 people today and not meet the needs we have for work and getting things done. We have to turn work away every day because there aren’t enough people in the construction industry,” he said.

TPS is the latest immigration decision to confront Washington.

Republicans and Democrats are already battling over a solution to the Dreamers, a group of up to 2 million illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Some 700,000 of them have been living under protection of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals deportation amnesty. Like TPS, DACA gives permission to remain and work in the U.S. for a set time.

The Trump administration announced a six-month phaseout of the DACA program in September, putting pressure on Congress to come up with a more permanent solution.

Some Democrats have said TPS should get wrapped up with the larger DACA fight. In both cases, they say, the migrants have put down roots and expelling them would be inhumane.

While the Trump administration has left the door open to Congress to act on TPS, it has promised a stricter approach than either the Obama or Bush administration, which regularly renewed temporary protected status.

The Trump administration has gone the other direction, imposing an 18-month phaseout for TPS for 47,000 Haitians protected since a 2010 earthquake, and another one for several thousands of Nicaraguans protected since just after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

A decision on more than 50,000 Hondurans, also stemming from a post-Mitch grant of TPS, was postponed for six months.

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