TPS stands for Temporary Protected Status, an immigration status granted to foreign nationals who are living in the United States without legal status, and who are therefore potentially eligible for deportation, but who are from countries that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security determines are in such crisis that they are unable to reabsorb their citizens. Since 1990, the United States has granted TPS designations to countries facing extraordinary circumstances such as natural disasters, ongoing armed conflicts, or other emergencies that prevent the safe return of foreign nationals.
TPS designations are granted for periods of 6, 12 or 18 months, and are extended based on whether the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and other relevant agencies determine whether it would be too difficult or too dangerous to return TPS holders to their home country. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have recognized that political, economic, or security conditions in places like Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras are so difficult that they have necessitated repeated renewals of TPS. This is because the TPS statute as written heavily weighs the specific country’s ability to receive its nationals residing in the U.S. Hondurans’ TPS status has been renewed regularly following a severe hurricane in 1998, Salvadorans since two earthquakes in 2001, and Haitians since a devastating earthquake in 2010.
Currently, there are 10 countries with TPS designations, representing some 350,000 TPS holders across the United States. To qualify, TPS applicants must not only be from an eligible country; they must undergo an extensive application process which includes rigorous criminal and security background checks.
TPS beneficiaries are allowed to live and work in the United States, but are not granted a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship on the basis of their TPS status.
The Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) must decide whether to extend or terminate a country’s TPS status 60 days before it is set to expire. In doing so, DHS is supposed to confer with agencies such as the U.S. Department of State, which makes recommendations based on reporting by country experts and long-time career diplomats within the agency.
Democrat and Republican administrations alike made TPS decisions based on country reporting and recommendations from seasoned foreign policy officials, taking into account both whether the initial extraordinary situation had been resolved, and whether the country’s economy and political situation was such that it could successfully and stably reabsorb the population. However, the Trump administration has taken a wildly distinct approach in determining whether or not to extend TPS status. Since President Trump assumed office, the administration has decided to terminate TPS designations for six out of the ten countries with TPS. This equates to stripping status from about 98 percent of the current TPS holder population.
According to a class action lawsuit being filed on behalf of TPS recipients from four different countries and their children, the administration has justified its decisions on the basis of an overly narrow interpretation of TPS law. The suit also argues that the Trump administration’s approach to deciding on TPS designations was unconstitutional because it was adopted “in order to further the administration’s anti-immigrant, white supremacist agenda,” according to the ACLU.
The evidence supporting these claims is compelling. Documents from the trial show that high-level Trump administration appointees advised State Department and immigration policy experts to rewrite reports to reflect a reality in which the Trump officials could justify terminating TPS. In other words, Trump officials doctored the truth about in-country conditions to advance their own agenda.
As U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) director Francis Cisna wrote in an internal email to his own team regarding the TPS determination for South Sudan:
“The memo reads like one person who strongly supports extending TPS for Sudan wrote everything up to the recommendations section, and then someone who opposes extension snuck up behind the first guy, clubbed him over the head, pushed his senseless body out of the way, and finished the memo.”
There are currently seven cases being litigated against the Trump administration’s termination of TPS, involving all ten TPS-designated countries. A preliminary injunction has temporarily prevented the Trump administration from implementing the termination of TPS for El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Haiti. However, none of the cases in litigation offer hope of a permanent solution for TPS recipients.
Trump administration policy may have also made it more difficult for TPS recipients to pursue other pathways to legal immigration status. Immigration groups are suing the Trump administration on behalf of several TPS recipients who, the plaintiffs claim, were wrongfully and illegally denied permanent residency status even though the recipients had followed the appropriate steps.
Over the next year, over 315,000 TPS recipients from eight countries could lose their legal status and be at risk of deportation. Many of them—especially those with young children, sick relatives, or small businesses—will likely choose to remain in the United States without legal status and live in fear.
The average TPS holder has lived in this country between 10 to 20 years. In this time, TPS recipients have established firm community roots, set up businesses, and raised families. TPS holders are parents to over 273,000 U.S. citizen children. Immigration groups warn of a second wave of family separations, when TPS parents or grandparents may have to choose between abandoning their U.S. citizen children, or forcing them to return to a country they do not know or recognize.
TPS recipients maintain high participation rates in the labor force, specifically in industries suffering from national labor shortages. A survey from 2017 found that 87 percent of the TPS holders from Honduras and El Salvador (almost three-quarters of the total population of TPS recipients) are employed. An estimated 17 percent of TPS recipients work in the construction industry, mostly in states already suffering acute labor shortages. A recent press release by Working Families United drew the following conclusions about the potential economic costs of ending TPS:
“If Congress allows Trump’s terminations, the mass layoffs that would follow would cost employers $967 million in immediate turnover costs. Ending TPS would cost the U.S. an estimated $164 billion in GDP and cause a loss of $6.9 billion in Social Security and Medicare payments over a decade. Mass deportation of TPS recipients would cost taxpayers more than $3 billion dollars.”
Aside from the economic drain, deporting TPS beneficiaries en masse back to their home countries would undermine U.S. security interests, according to warnings from State Department officials (which the Trump administration ignored). Notably, the former U.S. ambassador to Honduras expressed specific concerns about the likelihood that U.S. citizen children could fall victim to gang recruitment if forced to return to Honduras or El Salvador.
Alongside the termination of TPS, the Trump administration also moved to end the so-called Dreamers program, or DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which currently protects some 700,000 young migrants brought to the United States as children. Put together, both policies endanger the future of over one million immigrants who had been legally living, working, and studying in the United States for years.
Over the past two years, both the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have used TPS and “Dreamer” populations as political pawns, repeatedly trying to force through a deal in which Democrats would agree to hardline immigration enforcement policies, in exchange for a solution to the legal limbo facing TPS beneficiaries and “Dreamers.”
It’s time for Congress to come to a resolution that offers permanent legal status or access to citizenship for both DACA and TPS recipients, without pushing through draconian immigration policies that even many Republicans do not support. There are efforts in both the House and the Senate to get this done.