The countdown is on: the Trump administration has just five days to decide the fates of tens of thousands of Hondurans and Nicaraguans who are in the United States through the Temporary Protected Status, or “TPS,” program. TPS allows nationals of select countries to live and work in the U.S. due to special circumstances in their home countries, such as a natural disaster.
The alarm bells rang on the TPS program in May, when John Kelly, then secretary of Homeland Security, announced that 46,000 Haitians should prepare to return home when their TPS status expired next January. The designation was first given to that country in 2010, when a devastating earthquake killed 250,000 people and leveled parts of its capital, Port-au-Prince.
Now some 250,000 Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans fear the same fate. The TPS designations for Honduras and Nicaragua expire on Jan. 5, but the Department of Homeland Security must decide whether to extend or terminate the benefits 60 days prior, which means any extension would have to be made by next Monday. El Salvador’s TPS designation expires March 9, meaning a decision for that country must come by January.
Immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua were given temporary protected status in 1999, after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch on both countries. A total of 57,000 Hondurans and 2,550 Nicaraguans currently benefit from TPS, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). El Salvador was given TPS designation in 2001 after a series of earthquakes, and 195,000 of its citizens benefit from TPS, according to USCIS.
After Kelly left DHS and took over as White House chief of staff, he met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in July to discuss immigration and border security. After that meeting, Illinois Democratic congressman Luis Gutiérrez told Univision that Kelly had provided "clear indications" that TPS would be canceled for numerous countries.
Orlando López, a Honduran activist who has been in the United States for 19 years, says Hondurans are worried about their future.
“We’re scared they’re not going to renew it”, he said. “Of course we’re scared. How could we not be? What will happen if they don’t?”
Temporary Protected Status
Under TPS, which is granted due to conflict, natural disaster or other extraordinary conditions, immigrants can live and work legally in the United States and be protected from deportation. Only those who were in the U.S. prior to the designation are eligible; TPS is not a refugee status. With the legal status, beneficiaries are entitled to travel outside of the country.
Though TPS is, by nature, “temporary,” the U.S. has renewed the legal statutes for the three Central American countries and Haiti every 18 months since their original designation, allowing those with the benefit to easily renew their work permits.
As a result, many TPS status holders have been in the U.S. for many years. On average, recipients from Honduras have lived in the United States for 22 years, recipients from El Salvador 21 years, and recipients from Haiti 13 years.
They have started businesses, bought homes and had children in the United States. They pay taxes and contribute to Social Security. And they must complete background checks when they submit renewal applications, paying substantial fees each time.
According to the Center for Migration Studies, 273,200 U.S.-born children have parents from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti who have TPS.
No permanent solution
In a May 2017 report, the Center for Migration Research found that TPS recipients have been able to integrate into many aspects of life in the United States, but without a pathway to permanent legal status, they’re hindered in “other forms of more stable and successful integration.” People with TPS don’t receive public benefits.
The last time Congress debated a permanent solution for this population was in 2013, when the Senate passed S.744, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, including those with TPS. The bill was blocked by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Under Trump, the situation has gotten more precarious. The designations of TPS for the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—originally granted during the Ebola epidemic in 2014—terminated in May, sending many of the 4,000 previously legal immigrants into the shadows.
Once a TPS legal status expires, beneficiaries are subject to deportation overnight and work permits are no longer valid.
If DHS does not announce an extension for Honduran and Nicaraguan beneficiaries by Monday, their legal status will automatically expire on Jan. 5.
TPS by the numbers
The three countries with the largest TPS populations in the United States are El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti.
(Outside of Latin America and the Caribbean, other countries with TPS designations include Nepal, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Sudan’s will end in 2018.)
TPS beneficiaries contribute heartily to the economy. A recent study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that the United States would lose $164 billion in gross domestic product (GDP) over the next decade if Salvadoran, Honduran, and Haitian workers with TPS were removed from the labor force.
According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, if those TPS holders lost their work authorization, contributions to Social Security and Medicare would go down $6.9 billion in a decade.
The program has also generated federal revenue through application and renewal fees that has cost some beneficiaries thousands of dollars over the last two decades. The TPS renewals can cost up to $465, depending on whether the beneficiary is renewing a work permit.
TPS beneficiaries from these three countries work mainly in construction, restaurant and other food services, landscaping services, child care, and grocery stores, according to CAP.
Nearly one-third of households with Salvadoran, Honduran, and Haitian TPS holders have mortgages.
“When Trump didn’t renew Haiti’s TPS, Hondurans started getting nervous and selling their homes,” Francisco Portillo, a political activist who runs the Organización Hondureña Francisco Morazán in Miami, told Univision.
TPS recipients frequently send money to family members in their home countries, which plays a key role in those countries’ economies.
A recent survey found that 77 percent of Salvadoran and Honduran TPS holders send remittances amounting to 9 percent of their monthly wages back to their home countries.
In 2015, remittances from the United States to El Salvador totaled $4 billion, to Honduras $3.3 billion, to Haiti $1.3 billion and to Nicaragua $621 million, according to Pew.
Using GDP estimates from the World Bank, the CAP calculates that remittances accounted for more than 15 percent of the GDP of El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti in 2015.
A dangerous return
Immigrant advocates say TPS beneficiaries sent back to Honduras and El Salvador, especially, would be exposed to horrific threats of violence.
In 2015, El Salvador was the most deadly country in the world, with 103 out of every 100,000 people murdered—almost 20 times the 2014 global average. In 2016, that number fell to 81.2 per 100,000, but it remains the most homicidal country in Latin America.
Last year, Honduras registered 59 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
Honduras is one of the neediest countries in Latin America, with more than 66 percent of the population living in poverty in 2016.
Those fears have led politicians, religious leaders and immigration activists to push the Trump administration for a TPS extension.
On September 11, 116 members of Congress signed a letter to President Trump asking to renew TPS for Honduras and El Salvador.
“Unfortunately, conditions have not sufficiently improved since the most recent extension,” the letter reads. “Additionally, El Salvador and Honduras are ranked as among the most violent countries in the world, and job opportunities are scarce. These factors complicate the ability of Honduras and El Salvador to fully recover from the natural disasters that resulted in their original designation.”
On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services and a number of other religious organizations sent a letter to DHS asking for an extension for Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. "Terminating TPS at this time would be inhumane and untenable,” the letter said.