The Trump administration faces a Monday deadline to decide the fate of nearly 200,000 Salvadorans who have been living in the United States under temporary legal immigration status for nearly two decades.
The Department of Homeland Security said Friday that Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had not yet made a decision on whether to end the program, which would force those people back to their native El Salvador or become undocumented immigrants if they choose to remain without legal protections.
Recent moves by President Trump, who favors lower levels of legal immigration, suggest the Salvadorans' protections are in peril.
The administration has been phasing out temporary protected status (TPS) granted by Republican and Democratic administrations to 437,000 people from 10 countries who have suffered from armed conflicts, earthquakes and other natural disasters, according to the Congressional Research Service.
In November, Homeland Security announced it was ending TPS for roughly 59,000 Haitians living legally in the U.S. since a powerful earthquake in 2010 decimated the country. They must return home by July 2019.
The department also eliminated TPS status for 5,300 Nicaraguans that was first granted in 1999 following the destruction left by Hurricane Mitch. They must leave by January 2019.
And while the department extended TPS for 86,000 Hondurans affected by Mitch for six more months, the administration indicated that they may ultimately be eliminated from the program.
Some feel the time has come for the U.S. to start phasing out TPS, which was created by Congress in 1990 as a short-term solution to catastrophic events overseas and must be renewed every 18 months.
"The 'T' in TPS stands for temporary," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower levels of immigration. "Salvadorans have been allowed to remain for almost 17 years, which stretches the boundaries of any reasonable definition of temporary."
But after living in the U.S. for so long, many Salvadorans believe the U.S. should come up with another way to allow them to stay.
The Salvadoran Embassy in Washington estimates that 97% of Salvadorans on TPS over the age of 24 are employed and paying taxes, and more than half own their own homes. Salvadorans on TPS have also given birth to 192,000 children, all U.S. citizens, according to a report from the Center for Migration Studies.
Edwin Murillo, 42, was granted TPS shortly after his country was battered by a magnitude-7.6 earthquake that left nearly 1,000 people dead and more than 100,000 homes destroyed. Murillo and his wife have two U.S.-born daughters, and he said the entire community will suffer through a sleepless weekend awaiting word on their futures.
The banquet supervisor for a hotel chain in Dallas, Texas, said he understands that the TPS he and his wife have enjoyed can't go on forever. But Murillo said it's inhumane to send 400,000 people — TPS beneficiaries and their children — back to a country that has yet to recover and is plagued by gang violence.
"Congress should consider the humanity, the dignity, of these families and give them some kind of a solution," said Murillo, who serves on the national board of the National TPS Alliance. "There are children who have been born in this country. These are families who have given their best to this country. To then, after 17 years, be told to abandon it?"
El Salvador's government, U.S. business leaders, and a bipartisan coalition of Congress have lobbied the Trump administration to spare TPS recipients.
Salvador's Foreign Minister, Hugo Martinez, has met with all three of Trump's Homeland Security chiefs to plead for another extension. Mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and other major cities have urged the department to maintain the program. More than 130 members of Congress have written to Nielsen to ask for an extension, arguing that the Salvadorans have become part of the "fabric of America."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also wrote to the department, decrying the financial hit the USA would take if it forced out so many members of the labor force. In October, the chamber pointed out that large numbers of Salvadoran TPS recipients work in the construction industries in portions of Texas and Florida hit hard by hurricanes in 2017.
"Terminating these individuals’ work authorization would run counter to the administration’s goal of ensuring a timely and full recovery for these disaster areas," wrote Neil Bradley, the chamber's senior vice president and chief policy officer.