MEXICO CITY — The Trump administration's decision to eliminate residency permits for some 200,000 Salvadoran migrants could cause far-reaching disruptions in the small Central American country, including a steep decline in remittances from abroad and a destabilizing wave of returning citizens to a homeland still racked by violence, according to immigration experts.
But Salvadoran officials took a more optimistic view Monday. They characterized the U.S. decision as an 18-month grace period, giving the government time to lobby Washington to find a permanent solution to avoid deportation for these Salvadorans.
"We are going to focus on the United States Congress, so that they pass legislation that allows our compatriots" to become residents, Hugo Martínez, El Salvador's foreign minister, said in a phone interview. "We think we have sufficient time and will work hard for this alternative."
If no legislation materializes, Monday's decision could result in the deportation of Salvadorans who have lived in the United States for decades, whose children are U.S. citizens and who send home billions of dollars a year to relatives in El Salvador. They would be returning to a country that has had one of the highest murder rates in the world in recent years, as well as a rampant gang problem.
The Salvadoran government has lobbied the Trump administration for months to find a solution that would allow these people to stay in the United States, rather than ending the Temporary Protected Status program, or TPS, that has been in effect since 2001. Over the weekend, El Salvador's Foreign Ministry continued tweeting about the benefits that Salvadorans bring to the U.S. economy and culture, saying that 95 percent of Salvadorans in the program are employed or own their own businesses.
The Salvadorans with TPS status "have become important members of their communities in the United States, and their contributions are key to the development of that nation," the ministry wrote Sunday on Twitter.
Martínez, the foreign minister, predicted that even if no solution is reached after 18 months, the number of deportees will be "far fewer than 190,000," as Salvadorans can try other paths to regularize their immigration status. The government is also planning a "very intensive program" for deportees, including loans and job training, he said.
"We have in the immediate future a great challenge," Martínez said at a news conference Monday.
Under the terms of the decision announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the administration will notify Salvadorans who benefit from the program that they have until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave or find a way to obtain legal residency.
In 2001, after two deadly earthquakes struck El Salvador, the George W. Bush administration allowed undocumented Salvadorans who were residing in the United States before February 2001 to apply for protected status, which allowed them to obtain work permits and spared them from deportation. The temporary program has been renewed several times in the ensuing years.
"Salvadorans have been beneficiaries of this program for so long it created an illusion that this would lead to a permanent residency," said a Latin American diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. The prospect of losing this status is "going to be very, very disappointing, not only back in El Salvador."
According to the DHS statement, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen decided that conditions in El Salvador have improved significantly since the earthquakes, erasing the original justification for the program. The announcement also comes in the context of the Trump administration's wider efforts to cut legal immigration to the United States and deport more of those who enter the country illegally.
The estimated 200,000 Salvadorans who enjoy this protected status also have roughly as many U.S.-born children, who are now at risk of seeing their parents and other relatives deported. "Families will be torn apart," the diplomat said.
If all TPS holders return or are deported, it will impose an enormous strain on a country of 6.2 million people where poverty is widespread and gang violence remains a serious problem. Although homicides have fallen over the past two years, El Salvador still had nearly 4,000 killings last year, giving it the highest murder rate in Central America, at more than 60 homicides per 100,000 people. In 2001, the year of the earthquakes, there were about 2,300 homicides.
Another major impact of the decision could be a decline in the amount of money that Salvadorans in the United States send home. Remittances now surpass $4.5 billion a year, accounting for about 17 percent of the country's GDP, according to the World Bank, and ranking as its single greatest source of income.
"The economic impact is going to be undeniable," said Roberto Rubio-Fabián, executive director of Funde, a nonprofit research organization in San Salvador. Remittances are the "pillar that supports an economy with serious structural problems," he said.
Experts said there are no good estimates yet about the potential loss in remittances, as it remains unclear how many migrants with TPS might end up returning to El Salvador. If large numbers do return, voluntarily or by being deported, they could push others out of the workforce.
"They're going to come back as pretty qualified, bilingual people," said Geoff Thale, a Central America expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. "What this is going to do is displace people there" and potentially cause "another surge in people leaving the country and looking for work here."
The administration's decision could also mean political trouble for President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander during El Salvador's civil war who has been in office since 2014. As a result of the TPS decision, his leftist political party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), could suffer in local and congressional elections in March, and in a presidential contest next year, according to political analysts.
"This will have a cost," said Sandra de Barraza, a columnist with La Prensa Gráfica, a Salvadoran newspaper. "The government could have had a more aggressive policy of assisting" those in the TPS program.
Some Salvadoran officials noted that other countries, such as Honduras, received a shorter grace period before their TPS program ended.
"I see this time they've given us as positive, so that we can fight for another status, and I don't expect a massive deportation in the short term," said Héctor Antonio Rodríguez, the head of El Salvador's immigration agency.
He predicted that if TPS holders are deported, many will try to return to the United States.
"They are not going to want to stay in El Salvador," he said. "They are going to try again to go by land into the U.S."
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.