Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former director of the U.S. Peace Corps, and former head of Latin America and the Caribbean at USAID.
If you think the last few weeks of separating 2,300 children from their migrant parents along the southern border were heart-wrenching, imagine if 273,000 American-born children are separated from parents whose temporary protected status (TPS) is terminated. That is what could happen if the Trump administration’s decision to revoke TPS for Haitians, Salvadorans and Hondurans is allowed to take effect.
Despite President Trump’s executive order reversing his policy of separating migrant families, most of those 2,300 children have not been returned to their parents. That is truly unconscionable.
More than 100 times that number of children — all U.S. citizens — will be placed in similar jeopardy if the Department of Homeland Security begins programs to deport more than 58,000 Haitians on July 22, 2019, more than 262,000 Salvadorans on Sept. 9, 2019, and 86,000 Hondurans on Jan. 5, 2020. Parents will be faced with the decision of whether to take their children — most of whom speak mainly English and know only life in this country — back to countries deemed by the State Department as not safe for travel, some with the highest homicide rates in the hemisphere.
Otherwise, parents will have to leave their children alone in the United States or, if they’re lucky, with relatives, or foster parents who they may or may not know, or some with “adult sponsors” chosen by federal agencies. The only other choice available to those parents would be to hide in the shadows as undocumented aliens. And that is what the ambassadors to the United States from El Salvador and Honduras, during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), predicted that most families would attempt. And DHS would undoubtedly begin a massive hunt for them.
The TPS provision in the Immigration Act of 1990 states that after each 18-month review, if conditions have changed — and governments can adequately handle the return of their citizens, and the returnees can return in safety — then it can be terminated. It does not say it is okay to deport them even as governments say they would still be overwhelmed or that it is still unsafe.
The Trump administration’s TPS termination decision reversed the findings of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, their secretaries of state and secretaries of homeland security, and their legal advisers. They found conditions justified legally extending the temporary protected status after each of 14 reviews for Honduras since it was granted following Hurricane Mitch in 1999, each of 13 reviews for El Salvador following two earthquakes in 2001, and each of four reviews for Haiti following the worst earthquake in the region’s history in 2010.
The decision to terminate the temporary protected status appears blatantly political since it contradicted the evaluation of U.S. diplomats in each of the countries who sent cables urging extension of TPS. They wrote that deportation of TPS holders and their children would endanger the fragile economies in those countries, overwhelm the countries’ abilities to provide services, lead to more violence, and prompt new flows of migrants to our borders, thus undermining U.S. national security interests. The U.S. Southern Command, which covers Central and South America, came to the same conclusion.
The Department of Homeland Security also ignored these State Department travel advisories in January warning U.S. travelers to “Reconsider Travel” to those countries:
• El Salvador: Violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.
• Honduras: Violent crime, such as homicide and armed robbery, is common. Violent gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, rape, and narcotics and human trafficking, is widespread. Local police and emergency services lack the resources to respond effectively to serious crime.
• Haiti: Reconsider travel to Haiti due to crime and civil unrest. Violent crime, such as armed robbery, is common. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents or emergencies. Protests, tire burning, and road blockages are frequent and often spontaneous.
Various studies show that more than 80 percent of TPS beneficiaries work, pay taxes, and contribute an estimated $690 million each year into Social Security. It would cost an estimated $3 billion to deport them and the U.S. economy would lose about $4.5 billion each year in gross domestic product.
Finally, U.S. policy, begun under Obama and a Republican Congress, and continued, according to Vice President Pence, in the Trump administration, sees the best way to reduce the “push” factors on illegal migration is to assist Central America to strengthen their economies, democratic institutions and law enforcement.
Sending back hundreds of thousands of people to those countries, when the governments themselves have said they cannot handle it, undermines that policy. And placing at risk 273,000 U.S. citizen children — some still being nursed — undermines our values.
The immediate answer is for the president to reverse the DHS termination decisions. The best answer for those U.S. citizen children is for Congress to authorize permanent residency for their parents now and a pathway to citizenship — they have been here for as long as two decades and have demonstrated they can contribute to our future — as immigrant parents in this country have done for almost 250 years.