Not everyone from El Salvador is a member of MS-13 but the epidemic of rampant violence that swirls in their wake has the full attention of the Justice Department and Homeland Security. DHS took a good hard look at why the tattoo-covered, machete-wielding killers are entitled to special protection and decided now is a good time to pull the plug.
Even before the big 7.7 magnitude earthquake that hit El Salvador in 2001, followed a month later by two big aftershocks, a violent civil war in the 1980’s sent refugees fleeing northward. When the quake hit, then-US Attorney General John Ashcroft graciously allowed immigrants from the country to apply for “temporary protected status.” It was intended to last 18 months, not 17 years.
The good news is that the number of Salvadoran deportations doubled in Trump’s first year. In 2017, “more than 1,200 people with suspected gang ties were deported to El Salvador,” immigration officials report. “That’s more than double the number of suspected gang members deported to El Salvador in 2016.”
Somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 Salvadorans have been living and working in the U.S. as part of the “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS) program. Not illegal but not citizens either. Time and again, administrations on both sides of the aisle have decided that conditions had not improved enough for those living in limbo to return home. The numbers have continued to rise over the decades. In just the last five years, 58,000 El Salvadoran “unaccompanied minors” showed up on our doorstep. In the last year of reporting, 24,000 families of adults and children traveling together were checked in at the border.
Time ran out on the latest extension of the “temporary” policy today and President Trump’s administration chose not to extend it any further. As a courtesy though, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is delaying enforcement for another 18 months “to ensure an orderly transition,” Kirstjen M. Nielsen explains. “Salvadorans should use the 18-month delay to either leave the U.S. or seek an alternative lawful immigration status in the United States, if eligible.” The notice details that “Salvadorans will have until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the country or adjust their legal status.”
The reversal of policy, though pretty much expected, “will send shivers through parts of Washington, Los Angeles, New York, Houston and other metropolitan areas that are home to large numbers of Salvadorans.” Under the Obama administration, they were led to expect eventual asylum.
Things may not be very rosy back home but conditions are much better now than they were. “The substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake no longer exists.” According to Secretary Neilsen, “El Salvador has received significant international aid to recover from the earthquake,” and “homes, schools, and hospitals there have been rebuilt.” According to today’s news release, “more than 39,000 Salvadorans have returned home from the U.S. in two years, demonstrating El Salvador’s capacity to absorb people.”
The biggest fear now is that the central American country’s murder rate is “one of the highest in the world” thanks largely to the MS-13 gang. Mara Salvatrucha is not native to the country. It started in Los Angeles and only took root in El Salvador after gang members were deported out of the United States.
As Attorney General Jeff Sessions pointed out recently, violence and instability alone are not good enough reasons to grant asylum.
“Our asylum laws are meant to protect those who, because of characteristics like their race, religion, nationality, or political opinions, cannot find protection in their home countries. They were never intended to provide asylum to all those who fear generalized violence, crime, personal vendettas, or a lack of job prospects. Yet, vague, insubstantial, and subjective claims have swamped our system.”
Conservative activist group NumbersUSA says the practice of renewing the temporary measure, again and again, has watered down the meaning and effectiveness of the humanitarian effort. According to Roy Beck, president of the group, “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.”
The Federation for American Immigration Reform also agrees, “there’s a reason the designation was referred to as temporary.” They also believe “that conditions in El Salvador are good enough for migrants to return.”
Ending the program is expected to be a huge blow to El Salvador’s economy. Almost a fifth of the country’s GDP comes from “remittances,” money that Salvadorans in the U.S. send home to their relatives. Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez worries, “Ending TPS will be catastrophic for El Salvador’s economy because it will add more deportees to the ranks of the unemployed and eliminate the remittances, which support many families in El Salvador.”