The Trump administration on Monday extended temporary protected status for thousands of Salvadorans in the United States, granting them reprieve from removal to El Salvador.
Administration officials had insisted for weeks that the continuance of TPS was not on the table in exchange for the resumption of aid to the small Central American country, or the signing of a recent agreement on asylum seekers. An estimated 200,000 Salvadorans in the U.S. have TPS, making them the largest single group under the program. Many live in Los Angeles.
El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, a millionaire millennial who has had warm words for President Trump and his officials, touted the move in a Twitter announcement Monday morning as a victory for his newly elected administration.
“They said it was impossible,” Bukele said. “That the Salvadoran government couldn’t do anything.... But we knew that our allies would not abandon us.”
Trump administration officials painted a different picture, however, attempting to limit the scope of the extension. Acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli, in fact, said TPS was not being extended at all.
“Rather, work permits for Salvadorans will be extended for 1 year past resolution of litigation for an orderly wind down period,” he said on Twitter.
But Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill, in Washington to sign the agreements, said Salvadorans are being given “breathing room” to find a permanent solution that will eventually earn them residency or citizenship.
Hill also rejected suggestions that El Salvador was being rewarded because it has acquiesced to Trump’s harsh demands that the tiny Central American country cooperate in holding back immigrants and asylum seekers from attempting to reach the U.S. border — a cooperation that has earned El Salvador sharp criticism among immigrant advocates. Hill was asked what El Salvador hoped to receive in exchange.
“This is not a quid pro quo,” she said. “It’s not.”
The administration has been adamant about ending TPS programs, which have also been granted to Haitians, Hondurans and others. El Salvador is the only country whose nationals have received a reprieve.
Hill acknowledged that any permanent solution for Salvadorans must come not through the executive branch but through Congress, where, she said, the image of Salvadorans as vicious members of MS-13 gangs, drug traffickers and criminals was being tempered with a more realistic picture that included hardworking members of communities and taxpayers, some of whom have lived in the U.S. for two decades. The more negative picture has been widely promoted by Trump.
Hill said Salvadorans under TPS will in effect be allowed to remain and work in the U.S. until January 2022. But the Department of Homeland Security, in a statement, was less specific, saying work permits will be extended for a year after “the conclusion of TPS-related lawsuits.”
A U.S. District Court in Northern California last October blocked the Department of Homeland Security from terminating TPS for those from El Salvador and a handful of other countries. Administration officials have sought to dismantle the program as part of their wider efforts to reduce immigration. TPS offers recipients protection from removal and the right to work legally in the United States.
The announcement also puts the U.S. in the difficult position of extending a program intended for people fleeing natural disasters or civil unrest, while at the same time in effect designating El Salvador a safe country for asylum seekers. The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Officials have offered little detail of the U.S. asylum agreement with El Salvador, which has yet to take effect. The deal was among several extensively negotiated with so-called Northern Triangle countries by outgoing acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, who is due to step down this week.
Central America’s Northern Triangle is an impoverished and violence-ridden region that accounts for the majority of migrants now fleeing to the United States. The numbers from El Salvador are substantially fewer than those from Guatemala and Honduras. The bulk of Salvadorans living in the U.S. began taking up residence during the civil war of the 1980s, when a U.S.-backed right-wing government battled leftist guerrillas to a stalemate eventually in 1992.