Temporary protected status, or TPS, for immigrants from El Salvador will expire Sept. 9, 2019, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen's office announced nearly two weeks ago. As a result, Salvadoran immigrants who benefitted from the program must either leave the country or find a path to legal residency by the deadline.
Salvadorans are the Houston region's second-biggest immigrant group and numbered nearly 104,000 in 2012, according to a 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute. Laura Murillo, president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said about 20,000 people in the Houston region will be directly affected by the loss of TPS and another 20,000 U.S.-born children of Salvadoran immigrants will likely have their families disrupted.
"They work in business, they work in the service industry—they contribute," Murillo said. "There's a price that's going to be paid in our GDP."
The end of TPS for this group would cost the Greater Houston area about $1.8 billion in lost economic activity, she said, adding that she was disappointed by the news but not surprised.
Houston has a larger share of non-citizen immigrants than the country as a whole, in part because of a higher rate of immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras with TPS, which according to DHS does not lead to citizenship. TPS' expiration for Honduran and Haitian immigrants was also announced in December and November, respectively.
DHS said the 18-month delay for El Salvador is intended to give Congress a chance to pass a legislative solution. But Zenobia Lai, program director for the St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance, said many of Houston's immigrants expect the program will simply end.
"Hondurans in TPS status have lived in our community for close to 20 years, many more than that; they pay taxes, contribute to our community, establish homes, raise children and provide the skills and labor needed by our economy," she said in an email. "Salvadorans in TPS status have been here since 2001, and have similarly contributed to our community; Haitians though for shorter period of time, have also been here for at least eight years."
El Salvador was granted TPS 17 years ago under then-President George W. Bush due to severe earthquakes in that county, which killed 1,100 people, injured 7,859 and left more than 2,500 missing, according to the Federal Register. The disasters displaced 1.3 million people, or approximately 17 percent of El Salvador's population.
DHS said its decision was based on a review of “disaster-related conditions upon which the country’s original designation was based," and determined that the conditions caused by the earthquakes no longer exist.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State has a Level 3 travel advisory in effect for El Salvador, meaning that federal officials recommend people “reconsider” traveling to the Central American nation. A level 4 advisory is the highest issued and would recommend not traveling to the country.
“Violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery is common,” the advisory states. “Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”
In DHS' announcement, the agency said it has conducted "extensive outreach" to Salvadoran communities. But Lai, whose umbrella organization Catholic Charities has staff with TPS, said she was unaware of any such activity right before the announcement.
"Ending TPS for close to 200,000 Salvadorans, 57,000 Hondurans and another 50,000 Haitians while knowing the level of violence and unfinished recovery since earthquakes seems unconscionable to me," she said.
Until Sept. 9 next year, immigrants with TPS can and are still recommended to re-register. Lai said it is still uncertain what could happen with the program, and even another 18 months in the country could give people time to find new residency options.
"It is the same reason why DACA recipients would still renew not knowing what the future holds for the program," she said.