WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States government said Monday it is extending protections for more than 200,000 citizens of El Salvador who have been living in the country under temporary protected status, in a boost for Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele.
U.S. Ambassador Ronald Johnson, appearing in a video with Bukele said that agreement “extends the (temporary protected status) for Salvadorans who are in the United States for one more year.”
Later, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, appeared to contradict the ambassador, saying via Twitter that the actual TPS program for Salvadorans wasn’t being extended in legal terms: “That’s not what happened.”
The effect, however, appeared to be essentially the same: Salvadorans who have been living in the U.S. under the TPS program — safe from deportation and allowed to work legally — will continue to do so for at least a year after courts resolve a challenge to the Trump administration’s attempt to end TPS for El Salvador and several other countries.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that Salvadorans with TPS will have the validity of their work permits extended through Jan. 4, 2021.
“This is recognition of the achievements and good work of the government of Nayib Bukele,” Johnson said.
The DHS statement said there was concern that “the sudden inflow of 250,000 individuals to El Salvador could spark another mass migration to the U.S. and reinvigorate the crisis at the southern border.”
The U.S. government has been pressuring Mexico, as well as the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where the bulk of migrants have been coming from, to make it more difficult for migrants to arrive at the U.S. border.
In September, El Salvador agreed to work with the U.S. to limit migrants crossing its borders and accept asylum seekers who had been trying to reach the U.S. border.
Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill Tinoco told reporters in Washington that the agreement gives Salvadoran community more time to lobby for a law that would permanently grant naturalization to the TPS holders.
But the Trump administration said the goal of the extra year is to facilitate the return to their country.
Kerri Talbot, director of federal advocacy at the organization Immigration Hub, said it is “absurd” for the Trump administration to “say people can claim asylum in El Salvador but on the other hand people can stay in the United States because it is too dangerous to go back.”
Bukele had faced domestic criticism when his government signed the immigration agreement with the U.S. Critics thought he had failed to get the coveted TPS extension in return.
“To achieve things that were considered impossible … this is truly a great joy for us,” Bukele said at a news conference.
The Salvadoran president said his government learned last week that the extension was going to happen, but kept it quiet to avoid hindering ongoing discussions with the U.S. government. The video with the ambassador was recorded Friday night, he said, and published Monday only after things were finalized.
Bukele said that it would directly benefit not only the 200,000 Salvadorans covered under TPS but some 200,000 children born to them who are U.S. citizens and faced the prospect of having their parents sent home, plus hundreds of thousands more in El Salvador who rely on money they send back home.
“I think (the U.S. decision) is a recognition also of the fact that these 200,000 TPSers are honest, hard-working people who pay their taxes, who have nearly 20 years of legal status living in the United States, who have 200,000 children who are U.S. citizens,” Bukele said, “and obviously taking away their protection and deporting them just like that, I think it would not have been fair.”
He added that the goal remains getting permanent residence for TPS recipients, but the U.S. congress would have to pass legislation for that — otherwise it’s up to the executive branch to consider renewals periodically.
José Palma, national coordinator for the TPS National Alliance, a group of TPS beneficiaries from across the U.S., told reporters that the lack of details on the extension could mean trouble for beneficiaries being able to keep their jobs.
“We need to find a permanent solution. This temporary protection is great, but we also understand this year will go by quickly,” he said.
TPS was initially meant to aid people from countries facing wars or natural disasters. Salvadoran citizens were originally granted TPS in 2001 following earthquakes in 2001.
El Salvador’s government has been worried about potentially having to absorb thousands of citizens who had made lives for themselves in the U.S.
Deportees are often stigmatized in El Salvador — people think they must have done something wrong to get deported — and find it more difficult to find work and re-establish themselves in their native countries.
The two countries also signed agreements that will send U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to El Salvador to train and mentor personnel. They also agreed to increase the collection and sharing of biometric data.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman reported from Mexico City, and AP writer Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed.