Revoking El Salvador’s Temporary Protective Status is bad news for the region

Image by Jorge Quinteros licensed under Creative Commons.

On January 8 the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would not renew Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for the nearly 200,000 Salvadorans living in the US. That has big implications for the Washington region, where more than 32,000 Salvadorans with TPS live. They tend to be concentrated in neighborhoods like Langley Park, Maryland and Manassas Park, Virginia, and have had a deep impact on local culture.

Some TPS holders will leave, spurring disinvestment and labor shortages. Others will stay and go underground. Neither scenario is good for these neighborhoods. 

What is TPS and how does it affect the region?

The Department of Homeland Security is in charge of designating TPS. Countries are eligible for TPS if they are recovering from a natural disaster or grappling with ongoing conflict. Once a country receives TPS designation, its nationals in the US may seek work authorization.

There are nearly 200,000 El Salvadorans with TPS in the United States. They are concentrated in three metropolitan areas: DC (32,359), New York (23,168), and Los Angeles (30,415). The US first granted El Salvador TPS in 1990, and the designation expired in 1992. After a series of devastating earthquakes in 2001, however, El Salvador’s TPS was reinstated. The Department of Homeland Security renewed the status continually until this January.

Seventeen years of continued renewals means that Salvadorans with TPS have established deep roots in the DC metro area. They purchased homes, sent their kids to local schools, and opened businesses. They were some of the earliest supporters of DC United. Pupusas are now part of the local cuisine. Salvadorans are part of the fabric of Washington.

Pupusas, plantains, and more. Image by Garrett Ziegler licensed under Creative Commons.

Why some TPS holders will stay and go underground

Despite the difficulties of living without papers in the US — especially in an era of heightened immigration enforcement — most Salvadorans with TPS will remain in the US after September 9. Several factors explain why.

A recent study in the Journal on Migration and Human Security found that the 300,000 TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti have 273,000 US-born children. Since only 10 percent of Salvadorans with TPS are married to a legal resident, leaving children behind with the other parent isn’t an option for most.

TPS holders are also deeply embedded in the labor market. According to the same study, only five percent of El Salvadoran TPS holders are unemployed (less than the workforce as a whole). Eighty-eight percent work in the formal labor force. The top three industries where Salvadoran TPS holders work are construction, restaurants and food services, and landscaping. In Washington, these concentrations are obvious to anyone who has hired a landscaper or watched neighbors get a new roof.

TPS holders are embedded in local economies in other ways as well. The Journal on Migration and Human Security study found that around 11 percent of TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti are self-employed (people in this category may also be employed in the formal labor market). Most self-employed TPS holders are small business owners, which means they are producing jobs. Nearly 30 percent of TPS holders from these three countries also have mortgages.

Conditions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti are also a factor. El Salvador and Honduras are currently among the most violent countries in the world. Deportees to both countries are also at risk because criminal organizations routinely prey on returning migrants, who they see as easy targets. Haiti, already a desperately poor country, continues its struggle to rebuild after the 2010 earthquake that sparked its original TPS designation.

Children are hit hard when parents are deported. Image by IM Swedish Development Partner licensed under Creative Commons.

What will happen to labor markets and laborers?

To understand how TPS revocation will affect the region, we have to look at four groups: TPS holders who own small businesses, industries who employ a lot of Central Americans, TPS recipients, and TPS family members.

TPS recipients with small businesses have three options: sell their business, put it in a family member’s name, or shut it down. Closing up shop is the most likely option. Unless TPS holders have adult children or a spouse with legal status, there is not often anyone to hand the business over to. Selling a business will also be difficult. Many of these businesses are restaurants and bakeries located in Salvadoran enclaves. The profit margin in these kinds of restaurants is already quite small, and those margins are likely to shrink with the economic disruption TPS revocation will bring with it.

Industries that hire Salvadoran (or Honduran) employees will likely face a labor shortage. Some TPS holders will return home. Some may seek asylum in Canada. Most will choose to stay, for the reasons listed above. Domestic business owners will have to decide how to handle their employees who want to stay on after losing status. They can either lay them off or move them off the books.

For TPS holders, going ‘off the books’ is a risky proposition. Employers can reduce their wages, arguing that they incur risks by keeping them on. They can refuse to pay overtime or not grant vacation or paid sick leave. Although not all owners will take advantage of employees put into this position, some will inevitably do so. Former TPS holders will have no legal recourse to fight them.

Revoking TPS also puts holders’ families at risk. When a provider (mother or father) goes underground, they constantly worry what will happen to their children if they are suddenly picked up by ICE agents and moved to a deportation center where they can be held incommunicado for days. Some worries are immediate and visceral — who will pick up my daughter from school if I’m suddenly detained? How can I let her know where I am?

Others concerns are more long term — how can I make sure that my child can get the money in my bank account? How can I afford to pay someone to take care of her when I can’t find a job back home?

Children worry too. Losing a mother or father to deportation can feel like a death.

Gang-related graffiti spotted in DC.

Bad for the neighborhood, good for the gangs

TPS holders from El Salvador are geographically concentrated; nearly half of them live in three metro areas. Within these metro areas, Salvadorans are further concentrated, often in enclaves like Langley Park in Maryland or ‘Chirilagua’ in Virginia. Chirilagua, also known as Arlandria, got its Salvadorian nickname from the home city of many of its residents.

TPS revocation is likely to lead to two problems that will reinforce one another. The first is disinvestment. Neighborhoods like Chirilagua will see the classic signs of ongoing disinvestment — shuttered storefronts, abandoned houses, and the aftermaths of evictions plain on local sidewalks.

The second is ramped-up recruitment efforts by local MS-13 cliques. A recent story in the Washington Post noted that part of MS-13’s resurgence in the region is due to its decision to actively recruit unaccompanied minors who were temporarily settled with relatives in the area. These minors are vulnerable to gang recruitment because they feel isolated in the US and desperately want to belong. Though many TPS holders’ children were born in the United States, the chaos that TPS revocation will create in their families and communities make them ideal targets of recruitment. A resurgent MS-13 is bad for everyone.

There are moral reasons to oppose revoking TPS. Many Salvadorans with TPS have lived in the US for twenty or more years. They have made lives here — opening businesses, having families, and contributing to the economy. To revoke TPS is cruel, especially to their American children who will see their families ripped apart.

There are also practical reasons to oppose revoking TPS. Trump’s move will further exacerbate inequality in the region by pushing people into the shadows. In the shadows, people cannot pay taxes or buy property. They will be too afraid to report crimes or assist in police investigations. Some will take measures into their own hands when they have been wronged. Gang activity will flourish. Restoring El Salvador’s TPS is the right move. The next step should be to create a path to permanent legal status for them.