LOS ANGELES — Nearly 200,000 people from El Salvador who have been allowed to live in the United States for more than a decade must leave the country, government officials announced Monday. It is the Trump administration’s latest reversal of years of immigration policies and one of the most consequential to date.
Homeland security officials said that they were ending a humanitarian program, known as Temporary Protected Status, for Salvadorans who have been allowed to live and work legally in the United States since a pair of devastating earthquakes struck their country in 2001.
Salvadorans were by far the largest group of foreigners benefiting from temporary protected status, which shielded them from deportation if they had arrived in the United States illegally. The decision came just weeks after more than 45,000 Haitians lost protections granted after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, and it suggested that others in the program, namely Hondurans, may soon lose them as well. Nicaraguans lost their protections last year.
Immigrant advocates and the El Salvadoran government had pleaded for the United States to extend the program, as it has several times since 2001. A sense of dread gripped Salvadorans and their employers in California, Texas, Virginia and elsewhere.
“We had hope that if we worked hard, paid our taxes and didn’t get in trouble we would be allowed to stay,” said Veronica Lagunas, 39, a Salvadoran who works overnight cleaning offices in Los Angeles, has two children born in the United States and owns a mobile home.
But the Trump administration has been committed to reining in both legal and illegal immigration, most notably by ending protections for 800,000 young unauthorized immigrants, known as Dreamers, beginning in March unless Congress grants them legal status before then.
And despite its name, the administration says, the Temporary Protected Status program, known as TPS, had turned into a quasi-permanent benefit for hundreds of thousands of people.
The Department of Homeland Security said that because damaged roads, schools, hospitals, homes and water systems had been reconstructed since the earthquakes, the Salvadorans no longer belonged in the program.
“Based on careful consideration of available information,” the department said in a statement, “the secretary determined that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist. Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated.”
The ending of protection for Salvadorans, Haitians and Nicaraguans leaves fewer than 100,000 people in the program, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.
It provides temporary lawful status and work authorization to people already in the United States, whether they entered legally or not, from countries affected by armed conflict, natural disaster or other strife. The homeland security secretary decides when a country merits the designation and can renew it for six, 12 or 18 months.
There is no limit to the number of extensions a country can receive. Countries that have received and then lost the designation in the past include Bosnia and Herzegovina, which endured a civil war in the 1990s, and Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia during the Ebola crisis. El Salvador was one of the first countries in the program because of its civil war; that designation expired in 1994.
The administration is giving Salvadorans in the program until September 2019 to get their affairs in order. After that, they no longer will have permission to stay in the country, forcing them into a wrenching decision.
Lagunas said that she would remain in the United States illegally, risking arrest and deportation. But she would lose her job of 12 years without the work permit that comes with the protection. Her family would lose medical insurance and other benefits.
“There is nothing to go back to in El Salvador,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “The infrastructure may be better now, but the country is in no condition to receive us.”
With his protected status, Carlos Jiron, another Salvadoran, started a small contracting business and won bids for big jobs, including to paint federal buildings in the Washington area.
“We have built a life here,” said Jiron, 41, who lives with his wife and two U.S.-born children in a four-bedroom house they bought in Springfield, Virginia.
He will have to decide whether to take his children to El Salvador, where he says they would not maximize their potential and would face safety threats; leave them with guardians in the United States; or remain in the country at the risk of arrest and deportation as one of the millions of unauthorized immigrants.
His 14-year-old daughter, Tania, a fan of Disney movies and hip-hop music, said she could not fathom starting over in El Salvador. “This is where I was born and am supposed to be raised,” she said.
Temporary protections were granted to Salvadorans who were in the United States in March 2001 after two earthquakes in January and February of that year killed more than 1,000 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. Over the next 15 years, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations extended the protections several times.
In 2016, the final time, the government cited several factors, including drought, poverty and widespread gang violence in El Salvador, as reasons to keep the protections in place.
El Salvador has rebuilt since the earthquakes. But the violence — San Salvador, the capital, is considered one of the most dangerous cities on Earth — has inhibited investment and job creation, and prompted tens of thousands to flee. The country’s economy experienced the slowest growth of any in Central America in 2016, according to the World Bank.
But officials in the Trump administration say the only criteria the government should consider is whether the original reason for the designation — in this case, damage from the earthquakes — still exists.
Some lawmakers have introduced legislation to enable people with temporary protection to remain in the United States permanently. At the same time, instability in Venezuela has prompted some members of Congress from Florida to call for protected status for Venezuelans.
The government of El Salvador had asked the Trump administration to renew the designation for its citizens in the United States, citing drought and other factors. Money sent home from Salvadorans abroad is a lifeline for many in the country, where four out of 10 households subsist below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. In 2016, the $4.6 billion remitted from abroad, mostly from the United States, accounted for 17 percent of the country’s economy.
El Salvador’s president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, spoke by phone with Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, on Friday to make one last plea. After Nielsen’s decision was announced Monday, Sánchez posted on Twitter, calling it an 18-month “extension” of TPS. The post prompted a flurry of angry replies accusing him of trying to spin the bad news.
Flor Mejia, who works in a day care center on the outskirts of San Salvador, said her family gets by with the help of money sent regularly by her sister and brother-in-law, who recently bought a home and have two children born in the United States. Her parents live in Chalatenango, a rural province in the northern part of the country, and are subsistence farmers, growing corn and beans for the family’s food supply.
“It’s going to be very difficult for my parents, not having this income anymore,” Mejia said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and immigrant advocacy organizations also had urged the administration to extend the protection, noting the Salvadorans’ deep connections to the U.S. According to an analysis by one group, the Center for Migration Studies, Salvadoran beneficiaries have 192,700 U.S.-born children; 88 percent participate in the labor force, compared with 63 percent for the overall U.S. population; and nearly one-quarter have a mortgage.
Donald M. Kerwin Jr., the center’s executive director, called rescinding protection for Salvadorans a “baffling ideological decision that is extraordinarily destructive on all ends. They are deeply vested and embedded in the U.S.”
In Houston, the elimination of protected status would aggravate a labor shortage already delaying repairs after Hurricane Harvey, said Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Brothers, a large construction company with offices across Texas and in Atlanta. At least 29 Salvadorans on his payroll are program recipients.
“During hurricane recovery, I especially need those men,” Marek said. “If they lose their status, I have to terminate them.”
But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors restrictions on immigration, said the Trump administration was correctly abiding by the original intent of the program.
“We need to put the ‘T’ back into TPS,” he said. “It has to be temporary. This has gone on far too long.”