The Trump administration announced Monday that it will terminate the provisional residency permits of about 200,000 Salvadorans who have lived in the country since at least 2001, leaving them to face deportation.
Monday's announcement is the latest step by the administration to cut the number of foreigners living in the United States — by squeezing the flow of legal immigration and intensifying efforts to expel those who arrived illegally.
The efforts span nearly every facet of the American immigration system. Arrests by immigration enforcement agents have increased 40 percent. Trump has slashed the number of refugees accepted by the United States to the lowest level since 1980. And last week his administration sent lawmakers an $18 billion blueprint for the first phase of a Mexico border wall.
The 200,000 Salvadorans are among the nearly 1 million immigrants whose lives in the United States have been upended and set to a deadline under President Trump. The largest group, nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants who were protected under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, are set to begin losing their temporary work permits in March at the rate of nearly 1,000 per day.
Democrats and immigrant rights groups denounced the Trump administration's TPS decision, which they characterized as another attack on the United States' tradition of humanitarianism toward immigrants and refugees. On Monday, however, DHS officials resisted suggestions that the decision by Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was part of a broader anti-immigrant agenda. They described it in narrower legal terms, as a recognition that conditions in El Salvador have improved enough since the earthquakes to no longer warrant the TPS designation.
"Based on careful consideration of available information, including recommendations received as part of an inter-agency consultation process, the Secretary determined that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist," the DHS statement read.
The statement noted that the U.S. government has deported more than 39,000 Salvadorans in the past two years, demonstrating, it said, "that the temporary inability of El Salvador to adequately return their nationals after the earthquake has been addressed."
Nielsen recently met with El Salvador's foreign minister and spoke with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, according to the DHS.
In total, DHS officials said, 262,500 Salvadorans have been granted TPS permits, but recent estimates indicate that closer to 200,000 people with that status reside in the United States.
Immigrant advocates, Salvadoran government officials and others had implored Nielsen to extend the TPS designation, citing the country's gang violence and the potentially destabilizing effect of so many people being sent home. El Salvador's homicide rate — 108 per 100,000 people in 2015 — was the world's highest for a country not at war, the most recent U.N. data shows.
Others urged Nielsen to consider the approximately 190,000 U.S.-born children of Salvadoran TPS recipients. Their parents must now decide whether to break up their families, take their children back to El Salvador or stay in the United States and risk deportation.
Senior DHS officials told reporters Monday that Salvadoran parents would have to make that choice. "We are not going to get involved in an individual family's decision," said the official, whom the agency did not allow to be quoted by name.
The potential economic impact on American companies and businesses was not a factor either, officials said. The mayors of Houston, Los Angeles and other cities with large numbers of Salvadorans had urged Nielsen to taken into account the wider contributions of TPS recipients, a third of whom are U.S. homeowners, according to recent surveys.
"Only Congress can legislate a permanent solution addressing the lack of an enduring lawful immigration status of those currently protected by TPS who have lived and worked in the United States for many years," Monday's DHS statement read. "The 18-month delayed termination will allow Congress time to craft a potential legislative solution."
Trump administration officials have repeatedly said they considered the TPS program an example of American immigration policy gone awry, noting that when Congress created the designation in 1990, its purpose was to provide "temporary" protection from deportation following a natural disaster, armed conflict or other calamity.
In November, the DHS ended TPS for 60,000 Haitians who arrived after a 2010 earthquake and for 2,500 Nicaraguan migrants protected after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
A six-month extension was recently granted to 57,000 Hondurans, a decision made before Nielsen's arrival, by then-acting DHS secretary Elaine Duke. That move frustrated White House officials who wanted Duke to end the program.
Lawmakers from both parties who represent cities and states with large immigrant populations blasted the DHS decision. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) called it a "cynical move" whose purpose is to "score political points with the extreme right-wing Republican base."
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) urged the Trump administration to reconsider, warning that it would be "devastating" to send Salvadorans home "after they have created a humble living for themselves and their families."
The TPS decision came as Congress deliberates DACA's fate. Some lawmakers see the looming Jan. 18 deadline for a must-pass government spending bill as leverage to forge a DACA solution.
Trump is demanding significant concessions. He wants to beef up border security and scale back legal immigration channels in exchange for supporting permanent legal residency, and possibly citizenship, for DACA recipients.
The president is scheduled to meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House on Tuesday to continue the talks.
There were new signs Monday that TPS could end up as a bargaining chip in the DACA negotiations. A person familiar with the talks said Congress could step in to help the Salvadorans, Haitians and other groups whose TPS permits are now set to expire in 2019.
Democrats and Republicans have been privately discussing the possibility of curbing the diversity visa lottery program — which grants about 55,000 green cards each year to people from nations with low immigration rates to the United States — in exchange for sparing TPS recipients from deportation. Trump has insisted that any DACA deal must get rid of the lottery.
One aide on Capitol Hill familiar with the negotiations said Democrats would prefer a narrow deal to legalize DACA recipients. But this person added that if Trump insists on seeking significant border security upgrades and cuts to legal immigration, then Democrats will insist on extending TPS.
Some Republicans fear that if a DACA deal falls through, it could harm the party in immigrant-heavy voting districts during a midterm election year. Meanwhile, immigration hawks are urging Trump to motivate his base by holding a harder line, as he did throughout the 2016 campaign. The president's top policy adviser, Stephen Miller, has been opposed to continuing DACA, and he is said also to have championed ending the TPS program.
"The fix has been in for these TPS decisions, regardless of the facts on the ground in these countries," said Kevin Appleby of the New York-based Center for Migration Studies.
"The decision on El Salvador is particularly damaging," he said. "It not only will uproot families and children who have lived here for years; it also will further destabilize an already violent country."
The DHS said in its announcement that it conducted extensive outreach to Salvadorans living in the United States, including "community forums on TPS, panel discussions with Salvadoran community organizers, stakeholder teleconferences, regular meetings with TPS beneficiaries, news releases to the Salvadoran community, meetings with Salvadoran government officials, meetings at local churches, and listening sessions."
Jaime Contreras, vice president of Local 32BJ, the largest property-service local in the Service Employees International Union, called Monday's decision "shameful." In the Washington area, he said, TPS recipients clean Reagan National Airport, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and "every major landmark you can think of."
"They have families here. A lot of these people own homes," said Contreras, whose union represents about 160,000 commercial office cleaners, security officers and others nationwide. "It's time for Congress to do the right thing."
Ed O'Keefe and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.