Sara Tabin

New Haven immigration activists and attorneys this week condemned President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Temporary Protected Status program for U.S. residents from El Salvador.

On Jan. 8, the Trump administration announced it would end TPS for El Salvador, a program that has allowed approximately 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador to live and work in the United States since 2001. TPS recipients from El Salvador have until Sept. 9, 2019, before their protection expires. Before then, they must choose either to leave the country voluntarily or to stay in the U.S. after becoming undocumented. Others may attempt to achieve permanent legal residency. El Salvador, which is the fourth country to lose protection under the program under the Trump administration, was granted TPS after earthquakes devastated the country in 2001.

“They are being forced to go back to a country that has been wracked by gang violence,” said Kica Matos, the director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change. “Understandably, families and individuals who have been affected by the announcement are really, really devastated.”

In a statement released by the Department of Homeland Security, the administration said the decision to end TPS for El Salvador arose because the “disaster-related conditions” caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist. However, advocates say, the conditions in El Salvador are still dire, citing violence, corruption and poor economic conditions.

Renee Redman, an immigration attorney based in New Haven, said she doubts many TPS recipients from El Salvador will choose to return to the country, noting that in the past, whether immigrants voluntarily chose to return to their home countries depended on the conditions in that country.

Matos agreed. “I’m almost certain that the majority of El Salvadorians will choose to stay here simply because of the conditions in El Salvador, the tremendous amount of violence, the economic conditions and the fact that many of them have made the United States their home,” she said.

Alicia Kinsman, the managing attorney at the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Migrants, said many of her clients are now faced with an “unbelievable dilemma,” listing challenges such as losing jobs and homes purchased in the U.S., problems with bank accounts and taxes and the possibility of being forced to take children who have grown up in the U.S. back to a country they barely know.

“How do you wrap up a life and ship it home when home is a place you don’t know anymore?” she said.

Kinsman noted that TPS recipients are required to renew their TPS on an ongoing basis, undergoing a process that includes vetting, fingerprinting, paying fees and maintaining a relatively clean criminal history.

“They’ve played by all the rules that we’ve set for them,” she said. “It’s almost as if we’re swiping the rug out from underneath them.”

Redman said there are fairly limited pathways for TPS recipients to try to get permanent legal status. Some, she said, may have adult children who are now old enough to petition for them. Others may be able to obtain work visas, though she called this possibility “doubtful.” Because conditions in El Salvador are so dangerous, still others may be eligible for asylum, she added.

Kinsman echoed Redman’s concerns, noting that in the majority of cases, if TPS recipients had been eligible for permanent residency before, they would not be on TPS now.

Kinsman said her work will consist of largely “deep screening” cases to see if anything that has changed or was missed in prior casework — such as being a victim of a serious crime — could help make the client eligible for asylum.

“So many folks don’t realize there doesn’t just exist blanket forms of relief,” she said.

Matos said the “systematic dismantling” of TPS for El Salvador is part of the Trump administration’s wider attack on immigration — attacks on both legal and illegal immigration, she emphasized. When other countries’ TPS comes up for renewal, she said she “fully expects” their programs to be terminated.

“The individuals who came here from those countries or who were here when those events had happened came here to survive, came here with the same motivations that brought most of our forefathers here, even if your forefathers came here on the Mayflower,” Kinsman said.

Congress created the TPS program in 1990.

Talia Soglin | talia.soglin@yale.edu