TPS: What it is and how it's changing

TPS provides short-term protection from deportation for people who can't return home because of national disasters, civil unrest, or health crises. Nicaraguans and Haitians lost protection this fall; Hondurans' and Salvadorans' status is under consideration.

Andrew Harnik/ AP
Demonstrators stand outside the U.S. Capitol during an immigration rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), programs, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, in Washington.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is determining the future residency of more than 300,000 Central Americans and Haitians who have been in the United States under the Temporary Protected Status program.

Q: What is TPS?

TPS is meant to provide short-term protection from deportation for people who can’t return to their home country because of natural disasters, civil unrest, or health crises. The protection is designed as a reprieve lasting between six and 18 months, and it includes permission to reside and work in the US. Many Central Americans first received TPS following hurricane Mitch, which ravaged the region in 1998. But protection for Hondurans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans has been renewed so many times that hundreds of thousands have been in the US for decades.

In November, Nicaraguans and Haitians lost their protection. The protective status for Hondurans and Salvadorans is still under consideration.

Nicaraguans and Haitians have been given 14 and 18 months, respectively, to regularize their legal status in the US or return home.

As of October, other countries whose people can qualify for TPS include Nepal, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Q: Why is this happening now?

At the end of October, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter to DHS arguing that conditions in Central America and Haiti no longer justify protection from deportation. It’s true that the situation in Central America following hurricane Mitch has improved. But there are other conditions that many argue still merit attention, including some of the highest murder rates in the world for countries not officially at war. Although Haiti’s last serious earthquake was in 2010, it’s been battered by hurricanes in the interim, and some 2.5 million Haitians are still in need of humanitarian support, the United Nations estimates.

The secretary of State’s assessment is required by law during the TPS review process. But some see Mr. Tillerson’s evaluation – and moves to do away with temporary protection for these groups – as politically fueled, and as part of a hard-line approach that President Trump has taken toward immigration.

Others argue that TPS was never meant to be as permanent as it’s become. Poverty, crime, and corruption may exist back home for the people who have lost permission to stay via TPS, but the program wasn’t designed to serve as a path to legal, long-term residency.

Q: Are home countries prepared for this kind of return?

The return of individuals who have spent long periods living, studying, and working in the US is often portrayed as a boon for their home countries. The argument is compelling: In struggling nations, US-educated nationals could help inspire change. But it overlooks critical factors, such as whether the home countries are prepared to tap into these skills, offer employment opportunities, and help in the emotional aspects of transitioning “home” after such a long absence.

Formal employment opportunities are scant in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Northern Triangle, made up of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. An uptick in deportations from the US has inspired some governments to run pilot programs offering job training for returnees. But with the removal of US protection for 2,500 Nicaraguans and nearly 50,000 Haitians, the wave of potential returnees could go from a trickle to a landslide, something neither Nicaragua nor Haiti is prepared for.

Complicating matters further, many TPS recipients have partners or children who are US citizens. There are an estimated 275,000 US-born children linked to someone with TPS.

Q: How are Central American and Haitian governments responding to the potential end of TPS?

Earlier this fall, the Haitian ambassador to the US argued that a TPS extension was “a necessity” for Haiti. He wrote that the country is still struggling to recover from the 2010 earthquake, and those challenges have been compounded by a cholera outbreak and damage from last year’s hurricane Matthew.

There are also concerns about how the termination of protection could affect remittances sent to the weak economies back home, which depend on these injections of cash.

Q: Is TPS the only program on the chopping block?

Mr. Trump’s executive order from January on border security triggered the review of many programs seen as admitting immigrants outside the normal legal channels.

Earlier this year, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has protected some 800,000 young adults who were brought as children to live in the US illegally, was ended. As early as March, some DACA recipients could be eligible for deportation if Congress doesn’t move on an immigration overhaul.

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