Established by the U.S. Congress in 1990, temporary protected status (TPS) provides legal status to migrants from countries that have suffered natural disasters, protracted unrest, or conflict. The program, which was first offered to Salvadorans fleeing civil war, has enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans for nearly three decades. It allows migrants to stay in the United States for periods of up to eighteen months, which the U.S. government can renew indefinitely. Other countries have implemented similar forms of relief: European states offered temporary protection to tens of thousands of refugees from the Balkans in the early 1990s, and Turkey offers temporary protection, including access to social services and permission to work, to millions of Syrians who have fled civil war.
More than four hundred thousand migrants live and work in the United States under TPS. The vast majority come from El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras. Ten countries have the designation; half of them have been TPS countries for more than ten years. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can renew a country’s designation if it believes conditions there remain unsafe.
President Donald J. Trump issued several executive orders in his first year aimed at boosting immigration enforcement and border security. One of them ended an Obama-era program that protected from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. In November 2017, the Trump administration ended TPS for Nicaragua and Haiti and announced that it was considering ending it for Honduras as well. Nicaragua and Honduras were offered the protection after a 1998 hurricane, while Haiti was assigned it after its 2010 earthquake.
In January 2018, the administration terminated the designation for El Salvador, where more than half of all TPS holders are from. Some 260,000 Salvadorans have been allowed to stay in the United States through TPS relief since devastating quakes in 2001. (In September 2017, DHS terminated the designation for Sudan, which had been continually renewed since its start in 1997, affecting about a thousand Sudanese migrants.)
The administration claimed that these countries had sufficiently recovered for migrants to safely return, giving them between twelve and eighteen months to remain in the United States and plan for their repatriation. In August 2017, El Salvador asked the United States to extend its TPS designation, saying the country had suffered additional natural disasters, including tropical storms and drought, in recent years. Haiti made a similar plea in October.
Migrants whose countries’ TPS designations are set to expire have few options to remain in the United States. They may not apply for permanent residency based solely on TPS, but those whose spouses or adult children are citizens or legal residents can seek legal status to remain in the country. Congress could pass legislation to prevent TPS holders from being deported. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have backed bills in recent months that would offer a path to permanent residency, but some members of Congress have questioned whether such a proposal can garner enough support.
TPS holders can also look for entry into a third country. El Salvador said it was in talks with Qatar for the Gulf nation to offer temporary employment to Salvadoran nationals set to be deported from the United States, leading some analysts to raise concerns about labor conditions for migrant workers there. Some migrants say they will try to stay in the United States regardless of their legal status, despite vows by Trump to crack down on unauthorized immigrants.
Many of the hundreds of thousands expected to be repatriated will face hardship, immigrants’ rights advocates say. The move is likely to split up thousands of families: TPS holders are parents to at least 273,200 children with U.S. citizenship. Many of those facing deportation are averse to bringing their children to countries that they see as unsafe. El Salvador, for example, is one of the world’s most dangerous countries. It has been plagued by high levels of violence linked to criminal gangs, particularly Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
The vast majority of TPS holders are employed, and about one-third are homeowners in the United States. Prospects for work in their home countries are few: the World Bank put unemployment in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, at 13.4 percent in 2017, and more than a third of the populations in Haiti, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are underemployed. What’s more, their removal from the United States has the potential to damage already weak economies. Roughly 17 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from remittances from the United States, and the Economist estimates that remittances from TPS holders alone make up 2 percent of its GDP. Some immigration restrictionists, however, argue that savings and skills TPS beneficiaries have acquired while in the United States can benefit origin countries.
The removal of TPS holders could be a drag on the economies of American cities with many TPS beneficiaries, such as Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, advocates say, setting employers back hundreds of millions of dollars in turnover costs. Some 88 percent of Salvadorans benefitting from TPS were in the labor force in late 2017, according to the nongovernmental Center for Migration Studies. Vox reports that nine thousand of them are employed by the U.S. government as janitors and maintenance workers in the capital.