Ending TPS May Deal the U.S. a Self-Inflicted Wound
The Trump Administration’s decision to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for an estimated 200,000 Salvadorans in 2019, and likely for another 57,000 Hondurans in the next five months, could deal a self-inflicted wound to U.S. foreign policy in the region. The move could also result in renewed pressure for more rather than less migration.
In the summer of 2014, thousands of young, unaccompanied Central Americans – mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – flooded the U.S. border, overwhelming authorities’ capacity to manage the influx. In the years since, U.S. policy has prioritized addressing the drivers of emigration. People migrate from Central America for a variety of reasons, including a desire to reunite with family in the United States, but there is a broad consensus about the factors that drive most migration from Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle: extreme violence; the pervasiveness of youth gangs, especially in El Salvador; and dismal economic opportunities for young people.
In the past four years, Honduras and later El Salvador have each taken turns as the countries with the highest per capita homicide rates in the world. While the causes of violence are complex, governments have been unable to regain control of neighborhoods where street gangs dominate, despite using the military and imprisoning thousands of young people — many with no judicial proceedings.
Extreme violence matched with weak economies and lack of adequate schooling or healthcare forms a deadly stew that chokes any hope young people and their families may have for the future. Economic activity is widely extorted by gangs, and the formal economy is unable to generate the growth that provides opportunity for young people entering the workforce. The extortion business and petty crime, in short the gang life, becomes a viable option for too many.
Parents, grandparents, and young people themselves are eager to avoid such a fate. A journey north, no matter the risks, is often seen as the best alternative.
Given this reality, the Obama Administration proposed a “Strategy for Engagement in Central America” that sought to address these underlying factors. Obama’s administration asked Congress for $1 billion to support efforts to improve public security, strengthen governance, and increase economic opportunity in the region.
A Republican-led Congress trimmed the Administration’s request and insisted on strict conditions on the disbursement of funds, but it supported the overall strategy. When Congress finishes work on the 2018 budget, it is likely that a significant bipartisan majority will have supported $1.4 billion in U.S. assistance over two years to address the underlying drivers of migration from Central America.
The Trump administration has also gotten on board, while making its own tweaks to the policy. In June 2017, then-Secretary for Homeland Security John Kelly organized a high-level conference on the Northern Triangle to re-assert the U.S. commitment to that region. In August of last year, the Trump administration summited a required report to Congress updating the U.S. strategy in Central America. According to the report, “the Strategy’s mission is to secure U.S. borders and protect U.S. citizens by addressing the security, governance, and economic drivers of illegal immigration and illicit trafficking, and to promote private sector investment in Central America.”
These and other statements by the Trump administration make clear that the overarching goal of U.S. policy is to dissuade further migration by addressing its causes. Yet the decision to potentially send back tens of thousands of Salvadorans and Hondurans to countries already struggling with extreme violence, weak governance, and underperforming economies seems like a recipe for greater instability and more migration, not less.
While we do not know how many Salvadorans or Hondurans will ultimately be returned to their countries of origin, it is likely to be in the tens of thousands if the current decision on TPS is not reversed or altered in some way. Both countries have the ability to receive and register the influx of returnees, but they do not have the infrastructure or resources to reintegrate the returnees. They already struggle to meet the most basic needs of their citizens. Some have argued that the returnees will bring with them resources accumulated in the United Sates, and skills they have developed there. This may be true in some cases, but even when successful reintegration occurs it will likely displace their less-skilled and more vulnerable compatriots generating new incentives for migration.
Furthermore, returnees may become priority targets for extortionists who know they may have a greater ability to pay.
Finally, the return of large numbers of TPSers will likely cut off a significant portion of the remittances they send back to Central America each year. Remittances represent approximately 17 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product, and 18 percent in Honduras. It is an economic lifeline in both countries and a significant reduction in remittances will likely have a negative impact on each country’s economy and further reduce opportunities for young people.
The goal of slowing and dissuading Central America’s irregular migration to the United States by addressing the underlying drivers of migration is widely shared and supported by successive Democratic and Republican Administrations. It has garnered broad bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, those same goals may be undermined by the decision to end TPS and potentially return tens of thousands of Central Americans who are largely productive members of communities across the United States. The impact in the region will be greater instability, a further weakening of economies, and ironically generate renewed incentives to migration resulting in an avoidable and self-inflicted wound for the United States.