-- The Trump administration announced Monday that it is ending protected status for El Salvador with an 18-month delay — the latest in a string of legal immigration programs that have been discontinued over the past year.
The approximately 262,500 Salvadorans that currently have Temporary Protected Status (TPS) will have until Sept. 9, 2019 to either change their immigration status, leave the U.S. or face potential deportation.
There are 10 countries with a protected status designation - South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Syria, Haiti, Nepal and Yemen. Approximately 436,900 people from the ten countries had protected status, as of Oct. 2017.
Just before Thanksgiving, the administration announced that the status for nearly 59,000 Haitians would end on July 22, 2019. Status for Sudan's 1,050 beneficiaries will end in November and Nicaragua with 5,300 beneficiaries will end in January of next year.
TPS is a special immigration status for people from a foreign country where the U.S. determines that conditions in that home country prevent those people from returning safely or where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately.
At the beginning of November, then Acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Sec. Elaine Duke delayed a decision for the some 57,000 Honduran beneficiaries for six months.
Protective status for Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone expired in May, a decision that was made by the Obama administration.
The original designation was granted to Salvadorans in the U.S. in 2001 after a series of earthquakes. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is responsible for managing the program, determined that the conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist.
According to DHS, 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 only considers the conditions caused by the originating event that prompted the protected status designation.
In July 2016, the last time the designation for El Salvador was extended, the Obama era-DHS found that there continued to be a "substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions in El Salvador" resulting from the earthquakes and El Salvador "remains unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return of its nationals."
Monday DHS said that the U.S. government has been able to repatriate more than 39,000 people back to El Salvador in the last two years, which demonstrates that the "temporary inability of El Salvador to adequately return their nationals after the earthquake has been addressed."
On Friday, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who makes the final determination about whether to terminate a program, had a phone call with President Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador regarding the upcoming decision, according to DHS spokesperson Tyler Houlton.
"She is grateful for the President taking the time to discuss the issue," Houlton said. Nielsen received advice from DHS staff, other federal agencies, and interested stakeholders.
A delegation of officials from El Salvador, including leaders of its ruling and opposition political parties, were unified on the need to preserve Salvadorans’ TPS, according to Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard's office.
“I strongly condemn DHS’s decision to terminate TPS for Salvadorans. This decision is mind-bogglingly divorced from reality, it is devoid of any sound policy considerations, and it reinforces this administration’s long-standing anti-immigrant reputation,' said Roybal-Allard, who met with the delegation last month, in a statement.
DHS says that only Congress can legislate a permanent solution to address the lack of an enduring lawful immigration status for beneficiaries who have lived and worked in the United States for many years. The 18-month delayed termination will allow Congress time to craft a potential legislative solution, said DHS.
In November, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), along with Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), introduced legislation would allow qualified TPS recipients to apply for legal permanent residency.
"This decision is shameful, but sadly it’s not surprising,” said Van Hollen in a statement after today's announcement. "The United States has long been a beacon of hope across the world, welcoming and protecting immigrants fleeing violence and turmoil — and it has deeply enriched our nation. These families work in our communities, open businesses in our state, and go to school with our children.
Rep. Yvette Clarke and others introduced legislation in the House in November to allow TPS eligible individuals to apply for lawful permanent resident status and allow those who have been here for more than five years to legally remain in the United States through a newly-proposed "protected" status.
Critics of the administration's decision say ending protective status for Salvadorans is a "cruel" attempt to deport immigrants that will devastate families.
"They are Americans in all but their paperwork. Now, the Trump Administration is trying to drive them back to a country engulfed in corruption, violence, and weak governance. That this is a cruel and heartless announcement is, for its architects in the Administration, a feature and not a bug," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, an advocacy organization, in a statement about the decision.
Last week, Amnesty International USA urged Nielsen, to extend the designation for another 18 months.
“The end of TPS for El Salvador is a devastating betrayal for thousands of families who arrived at the United States seeking safety as well as their U.S. citizen children," said Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA in a statement.
If forced to return to El Salvador, mothers, fathers, and children could face extortion, kidnapping, coerced service to gangs, and sexual violence, said Margerin.
"By returning TPS recipients to El Salvador, the United States could be sending people to their deaths," she said.
A senior DHS official said that it only based its decision on the conditions caused by the earthquakes, when asked on a conference call with reporters whether ongoing violence in El Salvador was a concern.
DHS said it does not track the number of U.S.-born children to Salvadorans that hold protected status.
Oxfam also raised concerns about returning people to an unsafe country.
"This decision is ill-conceived, dangerous, and undermines U.S. foreign interests in the region. This needless move will force hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes in the US to return to El Salvador, an unsafe country plagued by gang and drug violence, natural disasters, and poverty," said Vicki Gass, senior policy advisor for Oxfam.
Conor Finnegan and Ben Gittleson contributed to this story.