Save TPS for Central Americans and Haitians!


Over 400,000 people from 13 different countries including El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti and Nicaragua are able to live in the United States under Temporary Protected Status. Source: CHTV

The Trump administration is mulling revoking Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for tens of thousands of immigrants from Central America’s northern triangle and Haiti after already having scrapped the protections for approximately 5,000 Nicaraguans, many of whom have lived in the United States for over two decades. The move is not only cruel, but also counterproductive in stemming migration from the region. Resounding calls in defense of the program — like were heard against the Muslim ban and in support of DACA — are critical to save TPS and avoid a dangerous precedent.

Additionally, the State Department also recommended stripping Haitians, Hondurans, and Salvadorans of the protected status. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly has also tried to pressure the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Elaine Duke, to expel Hondurans. Together, TPS recipients from the four countries total a potential 300,000 people (out of about 400,000 overall) who may lose their right to remain in the United States.

The new policy is needlessly cruel and counterproductive, it and sets a dangerous precedent for other immigrant and refugee protections. What is particularly cruel is the fact that Washington bears responsibility for helping create unlivable conditions in the countries that these immigrants are fleeing.

Is the Trump administration using Sundanese and Nicaraguan people as a test to see what immigrant protections can be undone quickly and quietly? Considering that John Kelly pressured the acting secretary of DHS to end TPS for Hondurans, the possibilities are frightening and dangerous if this is the case.

In the Trump era, it’s hard to wrestle the spotlight away from other important immigration issues like the Muslim ban, the border wall, and the repeal of DACA. Outside of a small group of scholars, journalists, lawyers, activists, and the immigrant communities affected, few noticed when Trump announced his plan to dismantle this important immigrant protection. But as a researcher of Central American migration, I believe that if you care about these other immigration issues, you should care about saving TPS.

An examination of the history of TPS and Central American and Haitian migration helps to contextualize the importance of this issue. The mass migration of these populations are inherently entangled in the history of the Cold War. In particular, 1980s Central America experienced a period of violent civil wars and counterinsurgencies. Importantly, this state repression was directly funded by the Washington under U.S. President Ronald Reagan, though U.S. attacks on democracy go back much farther, such as the 1954 CIA-orchestrated coup in Guatemala.

Washington sewed seeds of mass migration by backing state repression

The United States sent money and weapons to the right-wing dictatorships of El Salvador and Guatemala, which committed countless human rights violations and war crimes against their own citizens, including genocide in Guatemala. The violence of the civil wars displaced approximately 1.5 million Salvadorans and 1.2 million Guatemalans, who fled throughout Central America, Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Four years after U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala ended the 10-year democratic “spring,” the 36-year civil war began, institutionalizing terror, corruption, and impunity. Guatemala’s democracy still struggles to recover from the war’s legacy, with corruption and impunity thriving and the state failing to meet people’s basic needs.

Another tragic legacy of the civil wars was the birth of transnational gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). During the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans sought asylum in the United States. However, under the Reagan administration, the United States rejected them as refugees and asylees, and instead relegated them to undocumented “economic migrants.”  Many young and undocumented Salvadorans in Los Angeles faced poverty, racism, and disenfranchisement and were the targets of existing gangs. What began as an attempt to protect themselves quickly warped into a unique and violent gang culture. The MS-13 became transnational in the 1990s, spreading through Central America — particularly El Salvador — as the United States began deporting hundreds of gang members every year. Over the last few decades, the violence perpetrated by transnational gangs is one of the main motivations for Central American migration.   

In Nicaragua, U.S. involvement played out differently. Nicaragua experienced the successful socialist Sandinista revolution in 1979. Over the next decade, the United States funded the right-wing paramilitary group known as the Contras, which sought to destabilize and overthrow the government. Political and economic instability under the Sandinistas and the violence of the Contra War caused approximately 200,000 Nicaraguans to leave the country.

Honduras did not experience a civil war, yet it was not free from U.S. intervention. The U.S. used Honduras, controlled by a right-wing government, as a staging ground for its operations in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The infamous Battalion 3-16, a military death squad, worked under the instruction of the CIA to disappear leftist activists. This legacy looms with the U.S. State Department support of the Honduran administration following the 2009 coup that deposed the democratically elected President. In the wake of the coup, generalized lawlessness and impunity has fueled organized crime and violence, while human rights abuses have soared. Both state-sanctioned and gang violence have motivated many Hondurans to leave the country, particularly youth who are targeted for recruitment by gangs.

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In Haiti, the United States supported the brutal Jean-Claude Duvalier regime from the 1970s to the mid-1980s. Like with Central Americans, the U.S. government denied entry on humanitarian grounds to Haitians fleeing political persecution and widespread human rights violations.

In this way, the United States helped create the conditions in Central America and Haiti that caused mass migration and then refused to grant legal status to Central Americans and Haitians. The United States government literally made them “illegal” immigrants. This of course is not the first time the U.S. government made immigrants “illegal.” Historians Mae Ngai has demonstrated how the U.S. barred Chinese immigrants through the  1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and implemented national quotas through the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. Similarly, Aviva Chomsky has shown how the ending of the Bracero Program for Mexican migrant workers created the category of “illegal alien” without doing away with the U.S. need for laborers, pushing Mexicans and Central Americans into illegality. The late 20th-century policy toward Central Americans followed in this tradition.

Then in 1990, Congress took a step in the other direction and established that a Temporary Protected Status could be given to designated nationals fleeing violence or natural disasters. TPS finally provided some long-needed relief for Salvadorans through protection from deportation and permission to work. Since then, both Bush and Obama renewed the policy. It has been expanded to include more countries, responding to various political crises and natural disasters across the world.

With a history of bipartisan support, TPS has avoided being part of the flashier, fear-based immigration debate. TPS-affected communities have been aware of the potential risk for months with the announcement in September that TPS would end for Sudanese nationals. But to many others it may seem that the Trump administration has stripped away almost overnight the rights of 5,000 immigrants to remain in the United States and threatens to do the same to hundreds of thousands more.  

This policy change tears families apart by uprooting lives that have been forged over decades. But even setting the critical humanitarian impact aside, the forced mass repatriation of Nicaraguans who had legal status does not help “the immigration problem.” Rather, it threatens one of the more stable countries in Central America. While Nicaraguan immigration to the United States has decreased over the years, it is still a significant emigrant producing nation, with over 200,000 Nicaraguans having migrated to Costa Rica for better employment opportunities, as well as access healthcare and education.

If Trump ends TPS for Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Haitians, the consequences of such forced mass repatriations would be devastating to the region — including economically, considering billions of dollars get sent back to these countries from remittances. In fact, in Haiti, Honduras, and El Salvador remittances made up 29.4, 18 and 17.1 percent of gross domestic product respectively. There would almost certainly be an increase in gang violence, with those deported from the United States as potential targets for attacks or recruitment. Although Nicaragua has little gang violence in comparison to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the end of TPS would likely result in the destabilization of the region. According to Héctor Silva Ávalos, an expert on Salvadoran organized crime, ending TPS could increase gang activity, human trafficking, extortion, U.S.-document forgery, and general insecurity in Central America.

Pathways to citizenship are the real solution

If Trump succeeds in dismantling TPS, history will repeat itself. The United States would further contribute to the conditions in Central America that produce mass migration and simultaneously deny legal status to immigrants. This process will again create “illegal immigrants” where there were none.

An effective long-term solution would be to pass the recently introduced ASPIRE Act, which would provide permanent residency for immigrants with temporary protected status. A path to citizenship would be a sensible approach to resolve challenges with all programs that have been bandaid solutions for endemic problems, such as DACA and the Central American Minors program.

In the meantime, immigration activists are encouraging people to call their members of  Congress and demand that they protect TPS. Call yours and tell them that Trump administration’s decision is cruel, counterproductive, and dangerous. Ask them to fight to reverse the decision for Nicaraguans and Sudanese, renew for all other TPS recipients, and pass the ASPIRE Act. For the sake of those affected and for the sake of not repeating history, we must save TPS.

Rachael De La Cruz is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of California, Irvine, where she specialize in Central America, migration, and gender.

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