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U.S. to End Protections for Some Salvadoran Immigrants

10 Jan

By Alicia A. Caldwell and Laura Meckler

The Trump administration’s decision Monday to send home Salvadorans who have long lived in the U.S. brings to a close nearly two decades of policy that let nearly half a million immigrants from nations affected by disasters remain in the country.

Since the fall, the administration has ended a series of humanitarian programs benefiting immigrants from Central America and elsewhere. Separately, President Donald Trump ended a program advanced by his Democratic predecessor that protected from deportation young immigrants, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children.

All told, more than a million immigrants granted permission to work and live in the U.S. are being told they must eventually leave, absent action from Congress.

The fate of both groups may be intertwined with ongoing discussions aimed at reaching an agreement on the young-immigrant group as part of a deal to keep the federal government funded through the end of the fiscal year in September. Officials in Mr. Trump’s administration have said it is now up to Congress to decide the long-term fate of both groups.

Monday’s decision affects about 260,000 Salvadoran immigrants protected under the humanitarian program known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. Salvadorans are the largest and latest group of TPS holders to lose protections that have shielded them from deportation since 2001.

The Department of Homeland Security said last year it was ending the protections for Sudan, Haiti and Nicaragua. A decision about the protections for Hondurans is due in the spring, and the administration is expected to end that program as well .

Immigrants from each country have been given more than a year to prepare to leave or apply for some other immigration status allowing them to stay. Combined, more than 413,000 immigrants from those countries have been allowed to live and work in the U.S. under the TPS program.

One idea being discussed to allow TPS-holders to stay is to offer them green cards in return for curbing the diversity visa lottery program that Mr. Trump, a Republican, has criticized.

The visa-lottery program offers 50,000 green cards by a lottery open to people from countries that are underrepresented in the immigration system. It has been criticized as a magnet for fraud and a poor way to choose future citizens.

“I’d like to do away with the diversity visa lottery, which is a crazy way to allocate visas, and take some of those visas and make them available to the TPS population,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who is deeply involved in the negotiations involving young immigrants.

A congressional aide close to the immigration negotiations said lawmakers have been discussing adding those two elements to an agreement, and an administration official said there were conversations along those lines.

But other congressional aides were skeptical that there is political will to expand the legislation involving young immigrants, which is already a heavy political lift. Several people said that the best change for the young-immigrant group was a narrow deal focused on border security and protections for the group.

Rep. Will Hurd (R., Texas), who released a framework for bipartisan legislation addressing the young immigrants and border security on Monday, said the TPS population “absolutely needs to be addressed” but also said adding them now would make the task harder.

“This is a delicate conversation and negotiation between a lot of people and there’s a lot of moving parts. It’s going to complicate things,” Mr. Hurd said.

Still, in wake of Monday’s TPS announcement, several lawmakers said it was urgent for Congress to try to help these people.

“Congress has the responsibility to our constituents to address the status of both TPS immigrants and the DREAMER population,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R., Fla.). “It’s time for the leaders of both parties to start taking this issue seriously.”

The Salvadoran immigrants have been allowed to live and work in the U.S. since early 2001, when a series of deadly earthquakes devastated parts of that Central American country. At the time, they joined almost 60,000 immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua, whose countries were ravaged by Hurricane Mitch in 2000.

Only immigrants already living in the U.S. at the time of a disaster back home and who didn’t have a criminal record were eligible to stay under the program.

The protections for Central Americans have been renewed multiple times by both Republican and Democratic administrations. Those renewals have become practically routine, through these protections for people from countries in other regions of the world have come and gone.

Mr. Trump’s administration has taken a starkly different approach than other presidents. An administration official said Monday that the 1990 law that authorized TPS was intended by Congress to provide temporary shelter in the U.S. for immigrants whose home countries had suffered a natural disaster, political strife or some other “extraordinary and temporary” condition.

Damaged schools, hospitals and homes have been repaired since the earthquakes in El Salvador, the administration official said. Crime rates, poverty or economic concerns weren’t considered as part of the decision, the official said. The official also said that deportation to El Salvador have been ongoing – more than 39,000 people have been sent back in the past few years.

“I think that there’s definitely a thought that almost regardless of country conditions, if a country has had TPS for a while, they shouldn’t get it” renewed, said Royce Murray, policy director for the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant advocacy group.

Ms. Murray and others said it is nearly impossible to know if lawmakers will be able to negotiate an immigration compromise that includes a path to legal status for both young immigrants and the TPS recipients.

“I do think there’s a pragmatism to the discussion that Dreamers need to be protected,” Ms. Murray said. “If there’s a possibility for TPS to be added without an absurd trade off – and different groups would define that quite differently – then I think it’s on the table.”