- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2018

The Trump administration said Monday it will end a special humanitarian protection for more than 260,000 would-be illegal immigrants from El Salvador — though it granted them a long grace period to get their affairs in order and try to find another legal status.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said El Salvador has fully recovered from a 2001 earthquake and is now ready to take back its citizens who have been living in the U.S. for the last 17 years under Temporary Protected Status. She set a Sept. 9, 2019, deadline for TPS to expire.

Administration officials said she had little choice, saying El Salvador has already taken back tens of thousands of deportees over the last few years, including from President Barack Obama, proving the country can handle returning citizens.

“Schools and hospitals damaged by the earthquakes have been reconstructed and repaired, homes have been rebuilt, and money has been provided for water and sanitation and to repair earthquake damaged roads and other infrastructure,” the department said in a statement explaining the decision. “The substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake no longer exist.”

But Ms. Nielsen’s decision enraged President Trump’s critics, who called it a “heartless” move that will rend families apart.

Immigrant-rights activists, congressional Democrats and even the Salvadoran government said they will use the grace period between now and the 2019 deadline to try to create a new legal pathway for the people to stay permanently.

“America once opened its doors to these immigrants escaping harm in their home countries, and today we slam the door in their faces,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez, California Democrat. “The torch of freedom burns a little less bright today because of Donald Trump’s heartless choice to end TPS for El Salvadorian immigrants.”

TPS, part of a 1990 law, is supposed to be a temporary program that lets foreigners remain in the U.S. while their home countries recover from natural disasters, wars or other disruptions. Past administrations used the program for hurricanes, earthquakes, the West African Ebola virus crisis earlier this decade, and wars in Syria, Sudan and Yemen.

But it was the Central American countries who have proved the biggest test, with Honduras and Nicaragua enjoying TPS since just after 1998’s Hurricane Mitch. Haiti has also enjoyed TPS since the 2010 earthquake there.

El Salvador, though, was the biggest beneficiary, with 265,000 people protected — more than all of the other nine TPS countries combined.

The Trump administration said previous administrations regularly renewed TPS status without giving serious attention to the conditions back home, and Ms. Nielsen’s decision marked a break with that past practice.

Last year the administration announced an end to TPS for Nicaragua and Haiti, but put off a decision on Honduras until later this year. Those three countries accounted for slightly more than 100,000 TPS holders.

El Salvador’s TPS, meanwhile, covers 262,500, according to Homeland Security officials. Independent analysts have said they expect about 200,000 people to be affected — along with about 200,000 children born to them while they were here.

Those children are American citizens by dint of their birth, and activists — including several Catholic bishops — said the parents will face heartbreaking decisions about whether to bring those children back to squalid conditions at home, or to separate so the children can remain here.

More likely is that many of the families will decide to flout the law and remain in the U.S. as part of the illegal immigrant population — though they would lose their ability to work legally.

The Trump administration has signaled they could be deported, though unless they have serious criminal run-ins they won’t be high priorities.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats have proposed creating a new program to grant a pathway to citizenship to TPS holders as part of the ongoing negotiations over “Dreamers,” the 700,000 young adult illegal immigrants protected by the Obama-era DACA deportation amnesty.

DACA recipients begin to lose status in March, and negotiators are trying to come up with a plan to offer them a more permanent legal status.

One proposal would end the Diversity Visa Lottery, a current program that doles out 50,000 immigrant visas a year based on chance, but then use those visas for a new program for TPS holders.

Some immigrant-rights activists called the end of TPS a “racist” policy toward minorities — and Hispanics in particular.

“It is clear to us that this administration’s immigration policy is lead by a single racist goal: the expulsion of millions of people of color from this country,” said Adrian Reyna, director of membership at United We Dream, which advocates for young adult illegal immigrants.

Some of the groups argued conditions in El Salvador aren’t yet good enough to accept the return of its people. Catholic bishops in the U.S. pointed to a high murder rate and poor job prospects as problems awaiting the returnees.

Other activists said those returning from the U.S. make prime targets for extortion from dangerous criminal gangs.

El Salvador itself had pleaded with the U.S. to keep its people here, saying they are worth billions of dollars to the American economy.

But perhaps more important is their worth to the Salvadoran economy. More than 17 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product is remittances, or money sent back home by citizens working abroad — almost all of them in the U.S.

A staggering 20 percent of the Salvadoran population actually lives in the U.S., and TPS holders are as much as a fifth of that total.

Homeland Security officials said under the law Ms. Nielsen wasn’t allowed to look at violence, economic impact or any factors save for recovery from the earthquake. Officials have said otherwise, nearly all migrants would have an argument for staying in the U.S. compared to their home countries.

Under the law, Ms. Nielsen’s decision is final and cannot be reviewed by the courts.

That could save the administration from facing yet another lawsuit over its immigration policy. Dozens of other lawsuits are already raging on everything from the president’s travel ban to his anti-sanctuary city policy to his phaseout of the DACA program.

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