In 2001, following massive earthquakes that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced more than 1 million in El Salvador, the United States made room for people who had come here illegally fleeing the catastrophe. It was an act of generosity taken by President George W. Bush under a federal program known as temporary protected status. Some 200,000 people took advantage of the offer to live and work legally in this country.
On Monday, 17 years later, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announced that the Salvadorans who were accommodated will be required to end their stays in the U.S. "The original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist," the Department of Homeland Security said. "Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated."
Put simply, she understands that "temporary" is not a synonym for "permanent." The change follows similar determinations on people who have come here from Haiti (after a 2010 earthquake) and Nicaragua (after a 1998 hurricane). In each case, the emergency that precipitated mass flight has abated, but the status has been repeatedly renewed.
Critics of the latest decision regard it as cruel. Kevin Appleby of the Center for Migration Studies said it "will uproot families and children who have lived here for years." Adrian Reyna of United We Dream said these people "will be forced from the place they've called home for nearly two decades."
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These complaints confirm the proverb that no good deed goes unpunished. The United States had no obligation to take in these unfortunates, but it did so – on the understanding, made clear both to the people of El Salvador and the people of America, that they would eventually return home. Eventually, in this case, turns out to be far longer than anyone could have anticipated.
Panic is not in order. Under the terms announced by DHS, no one would have to leave until next year. And Mark Silverman, a lawyer for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, told The New York Times that anyone arrested after losing TPS is entitled to a deportation hearing – which "gives them at least seven to 10 years" because immigration courts are so overloaded.
We don't blame anyone who would prefer to live in this country rather than the places they left. But TPS was not meant to be, and shouldn't be, a way to admit immigrants or refugees who are covered by other programs. It was meant to allow the rescue of foreigners in dire, immediate need until the emergency has passed. The nature of that trade-off is that people who have made homes here will be obligated to leave them in due course.
Those denouncing the decision have a point when they warn that many of the beneficiaries will not go home but will stay in the United States, becoming unauthorized immigrants. If that's the case, it will provide fuel to anti-immigration advocates who would rather scrap TPS entirely. But we expect that many if not most of those who lose their protected status will comply with the law.
Those who oppose the change have a point in saying that, even though these countries have largely overcome the original disasters that caused the U.S. to offer help, they remain poor, chaotic and dangerous. That's not a reason to extend TPS forever, but it's a reason for Congress to take a close look at whether these foreigners should be allowed to stay.
The controversy is a reminder that our elected leaders should be hard at work on a comprehensive measure to reform our laws to balance the American tradition of accepting immigrants with the need for reasonable controls on the volume and type. If Congress favors permanent legal status for the people affected by DHS decisions, it can pass legislation to accomplish that.
Stretching the TPS program far beyond its primary purpose has been a convenient alternative to hammering out a sound consensus on policy. But it has gone on long enough.