In a span of 30 days in 2001, El Salvador endured two devastating earthquakes, the first a magnitude 7.7 followed by a magnitude 6.6. Hillsides crumbled and swept away neighborhoods. Houses disintegrated. Roads buckled. In all, the two quakes killed 1,156 people and injured 8,122 more while destroying 150,000 houses and damaging another 185,000. It was a devastating $2.8 billion natural disaster. The George W. Bush administration responded with compassion, allowing more than 200,000 Salvadorans who happened at that moment to be in the U.S. (both legally and illegally) to remain and work here under what is known as Temporary Protected Status until El Salvador recovered sufficiently to let them return safely.
President Trump says that time is now. After 17 years, quake recovery has been sufficient to allow Salvadorans to return home, according to the Department of Homeland Security. But while it may be true that the earthquake damage has been repaired, the country continues to be one of the most dangerous in the world. That’s why Trump’s decision to end protected status as of Sept. 9, 2019, for more than 200,000 Salvadorans is such a heartless and dangerous decision, and one that runs counter to American interests in the region.
There are numerous moral and pragmatic arguments for allowing the Salvadorans to remain in the United States. First, there is the question of whether the U.S. should ever send people against their will to a country where they will be in mortal danger. Furthermore, these are people who have been in the United States for more than 20 years on average, and have established homes, families, and, in some cases, businesses; it’s cruel to send them back after allowing them to build lives here for so long. What’s more, they have become parents of some 192,000 U.S. citizens; many of those young Americans would also end up living in dangerous conditions — in a country they don’t know where they might not even speak the language. Those who didn’t go back would be separated from their parents.
El Salvador is not safe. In fact, the State Department warns U.S. travelers against going there.
History matters here. Civil war wracked El Salvador from 1980 to 1992 (the U.S. backed the government in its bloody suppression of a leftist insurgency), which sparked an exodus of Salvadorans to the U.S. In Los Angeles, that led to the creation of the notorious Salvadoran gangs, such as MS-13, whose leaders and members eventually were deported back to El Salvador, planting the seeds for the rise there of the powerful street and drug gangs that have made contemporary El Salvador numbingly violent. Gang conscription, beatings and murders of those who refuse to join, rape of sisters and mothers as coercion — those conditions have made neighborhoods so dangerous that parents pay thousands of dollars to smuggle their children into the U.S. It’s true that gang violence isn’t the reason Salvadorans were granted protected status, but it would be callously formalistic to ignore that risk and force some 200,000 people to repatriate just because some houses and hospitals have been rebuilt since the earthquake.
From a pragmatic point of view, a forced return could be destabilizing for El Salvador, which relies heavily on the remittances sent back from the United States to family members at home. And as a poor country with a population of 6.4 million, El Salvador could have significant difficulty absorbing such a large number of returnees.
Unfortunately, the 1990 law creating temporary protections did not anticipate situations in which temporary dangerous conditions might drag out into near-permanency. Currently, about 400,000 people from 10 countries are in the United States under protected status; the Trump administration is lifting protections for those from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and, now, El Salvador. Over the years previous administrations have granted and then lifted protections for people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Guinea-Bissau, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Rwanda and Sierra Leone after unrest abated.
But El Salvador is not safe. In fact, the State Department warns American travelers against going there. The U.S. needs a smarter and better approach to dealing with foreign nationals left in limbo by protracted instability in their home countries. And it needs to find a better solution to the plight of the Salvadorans than to summarily boot them from a country we have let them call home for a generation.