- Since 1990, temporary protected status (TPS) has allowed migrants from countries with unsafe conditions to reside and work legally in the United States. Today, nearly 320,000 TPS holders live in the country.
- The Trump administration sought to end many existing TPS designations, but an array of legal challenges halted its efforts.
- President Biden has moved to expand TPS protections, including for Haitians and Venezuelans, and proposed legislation to provide TPS holders a path to citizenship.
Established by the U.S. Congress in 1990, temporary protected status (TPS) is a program that allows migrants whose home countries are considered unsafe the right to live and work in the United States for a temporary, but extendable, period of time. Though they are not considered lawful permanent residents or U.S. citizens, many have lived in the United States for more than twenty years. TPS holders now total more than three hundred thousand.
The program has received bipartisan support since its creation, but it has also sparked controversy. President Donald Trump sought to end TPS for hundreds of thousands of migrants as part of his broader efforts to restrict immigration, but his attempts were delayed by court challenges. President Joe Biden promised to overhaul Trump-era immigration policies and expand protections. He has granted TPS status to two additional countries, which could more than double the number of TPS holders, and proposed legislation that would provide many of them a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
What is temporary protected status and why was it created?
TPS is a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program that allows migrants from designated countries to reside legally in the United States for a period of up to eighteen months, which the U.S. government can renew indefinitely. During that period, TPS holders are eligible for employment and travel authorization and are protected from deportation. The program does not include a path to permanent residency or U.S. citizenship, but TPS recipients can apply for those designations separately.
Congress established TPS as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 to provide humanitarian relief to citizens whose countries were suffering from natural disasters, protracted unrest, or conflict. That same year, the program was offered for the first time to Salvadorans fleeing civil war. It has been broadly supported by Democrats and Republicans for more than three decades. A similar program, known as deferred enforced departure (DED), offers a temporary stay of removal for migrants facing political or civil conflict in their home countries; DED is implemented by executive order and does not have a legislative basis.
Other countries have implemented similar forms of relief. Some European states offered temporary protection to tens of thousands of refugees from the Balkans in the early 1990s, and Turkey offers temporary protection to millions of migrants who have fled Syria’s civil war. Meanwhile, in 2021, the Colombian government granted ten-year temporary legal status, which allows access to employment opportunities and social services, to more than one million Venezuelan migrants fleeing political and social unrest.
How does it work?
Once a country receives a TPS designation, any citizen of that country who is already physically present in the United States is eligible to apply for the program provided they meet certain requirements set by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a DHS agency. Disqualifying factors include criminal convictions in the United States and participation in terrorist activities.
The authority to grant a country TPS designation is held by the secretary of homeland security, who can extend it indefinitely if they determine that conditions in the country prevent individuals from returning home safely. Reasons for TPS designation include:
- ongoing armed conflict, such as a civil war;
- an environmental disaster, such as an earthquake, hurricane, drought, or epidemic; and
- other extraordinary and temporary conditions that render the country unsafe.
Once a country’s designation expires, individuals return to the immigration status they held prior to receiving TPS, which for most migrants means reverting to undocumented status and facing the threat of deportation to their country of origin. They can apply for work or student visas, if eligible, though those are temporary. However, those whose spouses or adult children are citizens or legal residents could be eligible to stay in the country legally.
Which countries currently have TPS?
According to the most recent numbers released by DHS, in March 2021, approximately 320,000 migrants [PDF] from ten countries live and work in the United States under TPS. President Biden’s extension for Haiti and new designations for Myanmar and Venezuela, however, mean an additional 479,600 individuals could be eligible for TPS.
Nearly 94 percent of current TPS holders are from El Salvador, Haiti, or Honduras. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans have been allowed to stay in the United States since devastating earthquakes rocked El Salvador in 2001. Haiti was first assigned TPS after a massive 2010 earthquake destroyed much of the country and received it again in 2021 following multiple natural disasters and violent political upheaval. Honduras and Nicaragua were given TPS after a hurricane battered the region in 1998. Since the George H.W. Bush administration, the U.S. government has granted TPS to nineteen countries, including Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kuwait, Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.
Today, TPS holders are spread out across the country, with the largest populations concentrated in California, Florida, New York, and Texas. On average, TPS recipients have spent more than twenty years in the United States. But for those whose country’s TPS designation is set to expire, there are few options to remain, especially for previously undocumented residents. In June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that being granted TPS does not override a previous unlawful entry into the country, which in practice disqualifies many migrants seeking to transition from TPS to permanent residency.
What is the debate over the policy?
Proponents of TPS assert that it is an effective humanitarian tool for people living in the United States who are unable to safely return to their home countries. El Salvador and Honduras, for example, are two of the world’s most dangerous countries; both are plagued by high levels of violence linked to criminal gangs. Meanwhile, civil war in South Sudan rages on, while Yemen remains embroiled in a humanitarian crisis. As such, migrant rights supporters have advocated for reforming TPS to make it easier for migrants to obtain permanent residency [PDF].
Some experts also point to the economic benefits of having a larger immigrant population, as the vast majority of TPS holders are employed. In many cases, prospects for work in their home countries are grim: the World Bank put unemployment in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, at 14.5 percent in 2020. TPS holders’ removal could hurt the economies of U.S. cities with many TPS beneficiaries, such as Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, advocates say. A 2017 report by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center found that ending TPS for Salvadorans that year would have resulted in more than $673 million in turnover costs, as roughly 88 percent of Salvadoran TPS holders were employed. Furthermore, removing TPS holders from the United States could damage already weak economies in their home countries. Remittances, a large portion of which comes from the United States, make up roughly 23 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Some critics, however, argue that an originally temporary designation should not become a de facto permanent program. Many who favor limiting it say that the savings and skills TPS beneficiaries have acquired while in the United States can benefit their origin countries. Certain policymakers have maintained that ending TPS designations after a set period is consistent with the program’s goal of providing a temporary safe haven for individuals rather than creating a path to permanent residency. In 2017, then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said TPS “is inherently temporary in nature, and beneficiaries should plan accordingly that this status may finally end.”
What changes did Trump make?
Immigration restriction was central to Trump’s campaign platform, and he took numerous steps to boost immigration enforcement and reshape asylum policy, including seeking to end TPS protections for hundreds of thousands of migrants. In late 2017, his administration terminated the TPS designations for Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan. The following January, it terminated the protections for Salvadorans, who account for more than half of all TPS holders, and in April, it terminated TPS for Nepal and Honduras. DHS said that these countries had recovered enough for migrants to safely return and gave them between twelve and eighteen months to remain in the United States and plan for their repatriation.
However, the terminations were challenged by multiple lawsuits, many of which argued that the decisions infringed on individuals’ constitutional rights and were racially discriminatory. In one instance, a California court temporarily barred the government from implementing terminations for El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan after several TPS holders claimed the terminations were racially motivated. In other cases, TPS holders from different countries united to file a joint case against the Trump administration. Due to a court-imposed delay [PDF], none of the administration’s TPS terminations were implemented, though several of the lawsuits are still pending.
What has Biden done?
Biden promised to reverse Trump’s restrictive approach to immigration. Since taking office, he has renewed TPS protections Trump tried to end and expanded the program to several additional countries. In March 2021, his administration granted TPS designations to Myanmar and Venezuela due to ongoing humanitarian crises, and in May, it announced a new eighteen-month designation for Haiti following weeks of political unrest there. DHS has also extended TPS benefits for nine other countries, including El Salvador, Nepal, and Somalia, all of which are being hit hard by COVID-19. In El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, for example, more than fourteen thousand people have so far died due to the disease. Migrant rights advocates, including many U.S. mayors and other local government leaders, have urged the administration to grant TPS to additional countries suffering from war and natural disasters, including Afghanistan, Cameroon, and Guatemala.
Biden’s campaign promises included comprehensive immigration reform; he unveiled his full plan in January 2021. Among other provisions, it aims to establish an eight-year path to citizenship for nearly eleven million undocumented immigrants (including certain TPS holders who have resided in the United States since 2017), reduce visa backlogs, and deploy new technologies to increase security at the southern U.S. border.
A subset of the bill, known as the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, would create a conditional permanent resident status for migrants, including DED and TPS holders, that would last up to ten years; it passed the House of Representatives in March 2021. A previous version passed the House in 2019 but failed to progress in the Senate. Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure plan also included a provision to provide TPS holders with a path to citizenship. However, the administration has acknowledged that none of these provisions are likely to pass the Senate in the current congressional session.
WilmerHale’s Claire Bergeron examines the legal parameters of TPS and details the program’s legislative history [PDF] for the Journal on Migration and Human Security.
University of California, Los Angeles, Professor Cecilia Menjivar looks at integration among TPS holders from Central America [PDF].
This Backgrounder details the U.S. immigration debate over the past few decades.
The National Immigration Forum summarizes the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which seeks to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
This In Brief breaks down common abbreviations used in U.S. immigration policy.
Will Merrow helped create the graphics for this article.