Questions US officials couldn’t answer about ending “temporary protected status” for 200,000 people

A protest supporting DACA and TPS outside the White House last fall.
A protest supporting DACA and TPS outside the White House last fall.
Image: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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The Department of Homeland Security said today that about 200,000 Salvadorans will lose their right to stay in the US next year. Most have been US residents for a decade or more, and many have children who were born here and hold US citizenship.

With studied nonchalance, officials from DHS answered questions about the impact of the decision during a conference call on Monday. They also asked not to be identified by name.

“How many American children could be affected by the El Salvador decision?,” one reporter asked the officials on Monday. “I don’t have that handy,” said the first official. “We don’t have that information,” said the second. However, the figure 192,000 has been widely reported, and repeatedly raised to DHS by members of Congress, religious leaders, and human rights groups.

Another reporter asked whether the DHS had considered El Salvador’s deadly gang wars, and the threat they pose to people deported from the US, and to their American children? They’d only studied factors that “apply to the 2001 earthquake,” an official said.

The group of Salvadorans set to lose their protection were originally granted “temporary protected status” after fleeing a 2001 earthquake. Since then the country has been plagued by gang warfare that particularly threatens teens who are ripe for recruitment, or capture. Sending back former TPS holders will rip apart hundreds of thousands of families in the US, leaving American children without one or both parents—or else force those children to move to countries that threaten their safety.

As Quartz has written previously:

TPS is part of the 1990 immigration act signed into law by George H. W. Bush. It was the US’s most comprehensive immigration reform since the 1960s, and part of a bipartisan effort to close the “back door” of illegal immigration to open the US’s “front door” instead and increase legal immigration, Bush said at the time.

US administrations since then have continued to extend TPS status long after it is first granted, often at the request of immigrants’ home countries, and anti-immigration activists say it is being misused to keep people in the country.

TPS holders often find themselves stuck in a legal bind, with local courts refusing to allow them to become permanent residents, but with permission to live and work in the US for many years.

The US attorney general can grant people from any foreign country TPS status if their homeland has an:

ongoing armed conflict within the state and, due to such conflict, requiring the return of aliens who are nationals of that state to that state (or to the part of the state) would pose a serious threat to their personal safety;

or if the foreign state is “unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return to the state of aliens who are nationals of the state.”

That seems unlikely, however. Attorney general Jeff Sessions said last October that he believes the US immigration system is being “gamed” and subject to “fraud and abuse.”

Since Donald Trump took office, the White House has pushed to end TPS for some 450,000 people in America. The fate of the Salvadoran TPS holders and their children now lies in the hands of the Republican-led US Congress, which needs to pass legislation to make them permanent residents.