By Greg Smith
Oftentimes, the future sneaks up on us by surprise. But sadly, the Trump Administration’s decision to terminate El Salvador’s Temporary Protected Status designation was anticipated by most immigration advocates.
Thankfully Salvadoran TPS doesn’t end until September 19, 2019. Still, a year-and-a-half doesn’t give someone much time to come to grips with their future and make decisions that will affect their life and the lives of loved ones.
My wife, Sue, and I, along with five Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond students, were in El Salvador on January 8 when the administration’s decision came down. For months, members of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Action Team had joined local, state and national partners to advocate for the re-designation of Salvadoran TPS. We knew how devastating the end of TPS would be on these TPS holders’ families in the United States, including and especially on their U.S. citizen children whose future could include living in a land they didn’t know or living without a beloved family member because of deportation.
But being in El Salvador when the decision was announced allowed us to see this issue from the Salvadoran side. What we read, heard and saw led us to believe the decision was short-sighted and potentially devastating for all concerned.
For one thing, TPS termination and the potential return of 200,000 expatriates could further weaken an already weak economy. According to Business Week, El Salvador is experiencing 7% unemployment and 40% underemployment. Absorbing so many new workers into the labor market would create increased poverty and misery.
Second, fewer Salvadoran workers in the U.S. means decreased remittances sent to families in El Salvador. Remittances from Salvadoran workers reached a record high in 2016 of $4.58 billion, including money sent back to make home repairs, buy clothes, or supplement the family’s income. Again, poverty levels will increase without this extra income.
Third, El Salvador ranks among the most dangerous countries in the world. Though our group found much of the country well policed and safe, we admittedly were well cared for and sheltered by our Salvadoran hosts. Returnees would encounter some of the highest homicide rates in the world caused by some of the most dangerous gangs in the world. Returnees could also be exposed to paying “renta” (extortion money) for the “privilege” of living or working in peace.
Finally, we found that not everyone in El Salvador would warmly welcome back their fellow citizens. Part of the reason has already been mentioned — impact on the economy, hardships created by smaller remittances — but also because there is a stigma against returnees who are seen as having “failed” in the U.S., or who are sent back as “criminals.”
Thankfully, both government and non-government/church agencies are beginning to prepare for the eventual return of their fellow citizens. Under the current administration, El Salvador created the Holistic Reintegration of Returnees program (Reinserción Integral a Personas Retornadas). We met with representatives of this program both in the capital city of San Salvador and in the western town of Santa Ana. The program is designed to provide returnees personal, social, economic and health-related support.
We also met with leaders of the Lutheran Synod in El Salvador. We were honored to greet Lutheran bishop Medardo Gomez, who in the 1980s worked alongside Baptist pastor Edgar Palacios, Jesuit priest Ignacio Ellacuria and others for peace in response to El Salvador’s decade-long civil war. Besides his church’s continued peace-building work, especially with the country’s notorious gangs, Rev. Gomez and his colleagues are partnering with the government to minister to the needs of expatriates returning home.
I came away from our visit with a renewed conviction that our advocacy action team speak out and work even more tirelessly on behalf of our Salvadoran friends and neighbors. Three ideas:
- Actively encourage Congress to provide a legislative pathway that allows long-standing TPS holders to legalize their status in the U.S.
- Redouble our efforts to assist TPS holders in understanding what other options may exist to legalize their status in the U.S.
- Connect Salvadorans who decide to return to their country with individuals and information to aid them in reintegration.
Learn more about TPS here.
Greg Smith serves as a CBF field personnel alongside his wife, Sue, in Fredericksburg, Va.