The Trump administration faces a Monday deadline on whether to extend protections that would allow nearly 200,000 Salvadorans to stay in the U.S. legally.
Citizens of El Salvador are currently the beneficiaries of the Temporary Protected Status program, which provides humanitarian relief for foreigners whose countries are hit with natural disasters or strife.
The administration ended the protections for citizens of Haiti and Nicaragua last year.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who is tasked with making the decision, told The Associated Press 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 said in an interview, referring to the uncertainty of short-term extensions.
A decision to force the Salvadorans back to their native country would send shivers through parts of Washington, Los Angeles, New York, Houston and other metropolitan areas that are home to large numbers of Salvadorans, who have enjoyed special protection since earthquakes struck the Central American country in 2001. Many have established deep roots in the U.S., starting families and businesses over decades.
Ending the protections would also represent a serious challenge for El Salvador, a country of 6.2 million people whose economy depends on remittances from wage-earners in the U.S. Over the last 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 would be unable to absorb such a large wave of people returning.
El Salvador’s President Salvador Sanchez Ceren spoke at length by phone with Nielsen Friday to renew his request to extend the status to allow more time for Congress to deliver a long-term fix for those covered to stay in the U.S.
The deadline 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 but gave Congress until March to act.
President Donald Trump is expected to host a bipartisan group of senators at the White House this week to try to hash out a deal.
The U.S. created Temporary Protected Status in 1990 to provide a haven from countries affected by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, war and other disasters. It currently shields nearly 320,000 people from 10 countries. There are nearly 440,000 beneficiaries from the 10 countries, including 263,000 from El Salvador — but many of those people have obtained legal status in other ways.
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 proven anything but temporary — with many beneficiaries staying years after the initial justification applies.
In November, Nielsen’s predecessor, acting Secretary Elaine Duke, ended protections 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, forcing a decision on 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.