WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration said Monday it is ending special protections for Salvadoran immigrants, an action that could force nearly 200,000 to leave the U.S. by September 2019 or face deportation.
El Salvador is the fourth country whose citizens have lost Temporary Protected Status under President Donald Trump. Salvadorans have been, by far, the largest beneficiaries of the program, which provides humanitarian relief for foreigners whose countries are hit with natural disasters or other strife.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's decision, while not surprising, will send shivers through parts of Washington, Los Angeles, New York, Houston and other metropolitan areas that are home to large numbers of Salvadorans. They have enjoyed special protection since earthquakes struck the Central American country in 2001, and many have established deep roots in the U.S., starting families and businesses.
The action also produces a serious challenge for El Salvador, a country of 6.2 million people whose economy counts on money sent by wage earners in the U.S. Over the past decade, growing numbers of Salvadorans — many coming as families or unaccompanied children — have entered the United States illegally through Mexico, fleeing violence and poverty.
In September 2016, the Obama administration extended protections for 18 months, saying El Salvador suffered lingering harm from the 2001 earthquakes that killed more than 1,000 people and was temporarily unable to absorb such a large number of returning people.
Nielsen, who faced a Monday deadline on another extension, determined El Salvador has received significant international aid to recover from the earthquake and that homes, schools and hospitals there have been rebuilt. Salvadorans will have until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the country or adjust their legal status.
"The substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake" no longer exists, the department said in a statement.
Homeland Security also said more than 39,000 Salvadorans have returned home from the U.S. in two years, demonstrating El Salvador's capacity to absorb people. It said the 18-month delay would give Congress time to develop a legislative change if it chooses, while also giving Salvadorans and their government time to prepare.
Democratic leaders and immigrant advocacy groups greeted the decision with resounding dismay, saying well-established families — many with U.S.-born children — will be separated and people will be forced to return to heavy violence in El Salvador.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called it "a heartbreaking blow to nearly a quarter of a million hard-working Salvadorans who are American in every way." Rep. Bennie Thompson, ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said it was "just the latest in a string of heartless, xenophobic actions from the Trump administration."
However, NumbersUSA, a group advocating immigration restrictions, called it an important step for the humanitarian program's credibility.
"The past practice of allowing foreign nationals to remain in the United States long after an initial emergency in their home countries has ended has undermined the integrity of the program and essentially made the 'temporary' protected status a front operation for backdoor permanent immigration," said Roy Beck, the group's president.
El Salvador President Salvador Sanchez Ceren spoke by phone Friday with Nielsen to renew his plea to extend status for 190,000 Salvadorans and allow more time for Congress to deliver a long-term fix for them to stay in the U.S.
The country's top diplomat, Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez, said Monday's decision underscored a need for Congress to act before September 2019.
"We are convinced we can get legislation in the U.S. Congress before that date," he said.
The decision comes amid intensifying talks between the White House and Congress on an immigration package that may include protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who came to the country as children and were temporarily shielded from deportation under an Obama-era program. Trump said in September that he was ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, but gave Congress until March to act.
The U.S. created Temporary Protected Status in 1990 to provide safe havens for people from countries affected by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, war and other disasters, and it currently shields nearly 320,000 people from 10 countries.
The benefit, which includes work authorization, can be renewed up to 18 months at a time by the Homeland Security secretary. Critics say it has proved anything but temporary — with many beneficiaries staying years after the initial justification.
Nielsen said last week that short-term extensions are not the answer.
"Getting them to a permanent solution is a much better plan than having them live six months to 12 months to 18 months," she told the AP.
In November, Nielsen's predecessor, acting Secretary Elaine Duke, ended the protection for Haitians, requiring about 50,000 to leave or adjust their legal status by July 22, 2019, and for Nicaraguans, giving about 2,500 until Jan. 5, 2019. She delayed a decision affecting more than 50,000 Hondurans, leaving that decision to Nielsen.
Last year, the Trump administration extended status for South Sudan and ended it for Sudan. Other countries covered are Nepal, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Salvadoran immigrant Orlando Zepeda, who came to the U.S. in 1984 to flee civil war, said he wasn't surprised by Monday's decision given the administration's position on other countries. Still, that doesn't make it any easier for the 51-year-old Los Angeles-area man who works in building maintenance and has two American-born children.
"It's sad, because it's the same story of family separation from that time, and now history repeats itself with my children," Zepeda said in Spanish.
Associated Press writers Amy Taxin in Los Angeles and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report. Spagat reported from San Diego.