The real people behind Trump’s ‘shithole’ comment

When word leaked out of President Donald Trump’s reference to “shithole countries” in a meeting with lawmakers this week, it immediately swamped news coverage of immigration, giving a racially tinged spin to an issue that was already loaded politically. It also crowded out discussion of a real decision he made earlier this week that affects real people.

Earlier this week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was revoking a special immigration status for some 200,000 Salvadorans that have worked and lived in the United States since 2001 after an earthquake struck El Salvador. This is only the latest group of immigrants to lose temporary protected status, which allows people to temporarily live and work in the U.S. after a catastrophe strikes their home country; DHS previously ended TPS status for 60,000 Haitians and 5,300 Nicaraguans, giving them deadlines to return home this year or early next year.

groups have sharply criticized these decisions, with some calling them racist and discriminatory. And Trump certainly has added fuel to that fire with his outrageous comments. But the question of whether the current TPS beneficiaries should be allowed to stay is a difficult legal and policy question. As a legal matter, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s decision makes some sense. TPS is a tricky issue, and the Obama administration—where I served in senior roles at DHS—wrestled with it. Nielsen is right that TPS was meant to be a temporary status in response to a specific crisis; the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Haitians who have lived and worked in the U.S. for decades arguably no longer qualify for the program.

But her ultimate decision—to revoke TPS status for these groups—is a serious mistake, taking a minor issue that garnered little attention in Washington and blowing it up into a big problem. It will have cruel repercussions in peoples’ lives, in communities around the United States, and in countries like El Salvador and Haiti. Trump’s comment reveals a personal malice towards these countries and their people but even from the president’s perspective, his solution is misguided. If he wants to stop the flows of migrants from these countries, returning these 300,000 people is exactly the wrong policy.

Let me explain. The ongoing use of TPS to keep these people here in the United States has stretched the original intent of the statute. For close to two decades, the Bush and Obama administrations continually extended the TPS status of these groups, despite the fact that the original conditions sparking the TPS orders in the first place largely dissipated long ago. Indeed, for all of the serious problems facing El Salvador or Nicaragua, the ongoing recovery from the 2001 earthquake or Hurricane Mitch in 1998 isn’t in the top tier. Moreover, the United States deports thousands back to each of these countries every year. If the conditions in El Salvador, Haiti, and Nicaragua are good enough to allow those deportations to happen, then the ongoing TPS status arguably makes little sense.

But given the realities of the situation, revoking TPS status is a bad idea. For the roughly 300,000 Salvadorans, Haitians, Hondurans, and others at risk, TPS has always been a stopgap humanitarian solution, kept in place on the assumption that Congress would eventually reform our immigration laws and allow most of these people to become Americans. In the intervening years, many TPS beneficiaries have formed deep roots here; they work at good jobs, have gotten married, have had U.S. citizen children and have become strongly knitted into communities all over America. Just like most Americans, the TPS beneficiaries generally live law-abiding lives out in the open and, unlike the much-larger undocumented population, fully out of the shadows of the immigration laws. Like many in immigrant communities, they also send money back home to their relatives in El Salvador, Haiti and other places. And this money is vital: According to the World Bank, remittances from family members account for nearly 20 percent of El Salvador’s GDP—and without them, the country would face economic privation.

Ending TPS status for these groups would cause huge disruptions in the lives of thousands of people and in communities across America. They will be faced with two options: either leave the country or stay and live in the shadows, joining the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

If these immigrants choose to leave, many will have to choose between separating from their families or forcing their U.S. citizen spouses and children to leave America and restart their lives in a foreign country. Employers will lose valued employees and communities across America will lose valued family members and friends. In addition, the influx of people to El Salvador, Haiti and other places will put further stress on countries that are already wracked with violence and poverty. Indeed, America’s biggest immigration challenge right now is the large flow of migrants—including unaccompanied children—fleeing gang violence and poverty in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Part of the Obama administration’s strategy for dealing with this challenge was to strengthen the institutions and economies of these countries to reduce the factors pushing people to migrate and seek refuge in America. But sending hundreds of thousands of people back to El Salvador and cutting off the flow of remittance funds will only deepen the dire economic situation in El Salvador, subject more people to gang violence, and lead to more people seeking to emigrate illegally to the United States.

If, as is more likely, these 300,000 people simply melt into the broader undocumented population, DHS does not nearly have the resources to deport them. Nor should it. For the most part, these are law-abiding people with families here—by no means a priority for deportation. In the meantime, these immigrants would lose their work permits and jobs, pay fewer taxes, become less visible to law enforcement, and live in continual fear of deportation. This is a far bigger problem for everyone concerned than simply maintaining the TPS status.

In other words, Nielsen’s order—while perhaps legally sound—only cuts off our nose to spite our face. If actually enforced, it will cruelly rip families apart, separate U.S. citizen children from their parents, and make the situation worse in Central America and Haiti, leading to a boomerang effect of more illegal immigration. Or it will just make the undocumented population bigger.

There simply was no reason to take this action. Yes, TPS was not the ideal status legally, and it depended on many enduring fictions. But it was a manageable and minor issue that DHS has now made unmanageable, adding it now to the pile of urgent issues—the “Dreamers” issue, our overwhelmed immigration courts, the Central American migration challenge, among others—that Congress is going to have to address. In the meantime, thousands of people now face an anxious and unsettled future.

What now? Assuming the Trump administration doesn’t reverse its decision, Congress should clean up the mess by adding the TPS beneficiaries to the current negotiations over the roughly 700,000 Dreamers with protected immigration status. Indeed, they present almost as compelling of a case. Like the Dreamers, the 300,000 TPS beneficiaries have deep roots in our communities, most are gainfully employed, many have children who are U.S. citize, and they haven’t broken any laws by being here. There is zero reason to throw them out. They deserve the same protections as the Dreamers in any immigration deal.

Fortunately, Congress appears to be doing just that. A bipartisan group of senators that brokered a deal over the Dreamers reportedly included these TPS beneficiaries in their agreement but after they presented it to the president, he uttered his “shithole” remark. That’s a disgraceful comment, and it shows an ignorance about these 300,000 immigrants. Including them in any Dreamers deal isn’t just a humanitarian act. It also is good policy. Ending TPS status and trying to deport these people will undermine Trump’s priorities, which include reducing the undocumented population and curbing illegal immigration.

The bottom line is that the Trump administration’s decision was unnecessary and foolish, and needs to be reversed. These aren’t “shithole” nations, and these 300,000 people have been here so long that they are Americans in everything but name. Congress needs to recognize this, do the right thing, and give them the protection they deserve.

Seth M.M. Stodder served in the Obama administration as assistant secretary of homeland security for border, immigration and trade policy. He previously served in the George W. Bush administration as director of policy for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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