Temporary Protected Status: El Salvador’s Missed International Opportunity

by Andrés Carranza Betancourt

The Department of Homeland Security’s decision to cancel Temporary Protected Status (T.P.S) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans living and working legally in the United States has sparked criticism and discontent from the Trump Administration’s opponents and members of the Salvadoran Community. Implemented as a response to two devastating earthquakes that struck the Central American country in 2001, TPS was the signature agreement that underlined US-Salvadoran relations in the 21st Century.

With President Trump’s new approach towards immigration however, the program had its days numbered and its termination came as no surprise. That being said, it is fair and interesting to analyze what bargaining chips, if any, could have been used by the Salvadoran government to influence the inevitability of Mr. Trump’s decision. Reading the matter through a geopolitical lens, El Salvador would have had something to offer.

Experts have referred to the decision as “counterproductive.” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, and Ben Raderstorf, program associate in the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law program, argue that “if T.P.S recipients are deported, a primary beneficiary will be one of President Trump’s most-stated enemies: the MS-13 gang.” El Salvador will not be able to afford massive waves of deportees, boosting the criminal organization’s recruitment and revenue opportunities.

A strong El Salvador is important when it comes to reducing illegal immigration. The T.P.S decision seems to do the exact opposite.

In addition, Salvadorans have assimilated well and are an integral part of the economic and social fabric of large cities such as Washington and Los Angeles. Nevertheless, none of the latter arguments seem to have been strong enough, proving that the Administration’s decision was a political one; a way of sending an encouraging message to Mr. Trump’s base and a means of exposing his merit-based approach towards visas and work permits. The Salvadoran government, on the other hand, failed to realize that the upcoming T.P.S decision was a political one.

SOTU Trump
“Tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed. My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too,” President Trump said Jan. 30 during his first State of the Union address.

If it did so, however, Secretary of State Hugo Martinez and his team managed to keep it under the radar. Mr. Martinez traveled to Washington various times to urge both the executive and legislative branches for extension of and legislation on the T.P.S respectively. His efforts never seemed to get past delivering speeches and meeting with sympathetic democratic congressmen, mostly because his visits were also matter of national politics. Any form of success would have immensely impacted the credibility of the ruling left-wing FMLN party’s administration, whose ties to the Cuban and Venezuelan governments have negatively affected US-Salvadoran relations. Had there been enough political will from the Salvadoran government to attempt to solve the T.P.S situation, they would have sought bilateral meetings with the Trump administration and resort to an action as old as time: realpolitik.

El Salvador, naturally the most affected by the T.P.S outcome, should have attempted to negotiate a deal with the Trump Administration.

Mr. Trump values the art of deal-making, and needed to hear something more than generic diplomatic discourse. Immigration is a pivotal element of his agenda and terminating the T.P.S was a victory for him in that sense. El Salvador needed to offer a bigger and perhaps more unifying victory, in the only field left to exploit: foreign policy.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently praised the Monroe Doctrine, calling it a “success”, whilst warning against China’s “imperial” ambitions in the region. The doctrine, which “asserted U.S authority in the Western Hemisphere over meddling European powers” is still, to many, a symbol of U.S Imperialism. The fact that America’s top diplomat chose said wording to start a six-day trip to five different Latin American countries is no coincidence and shows that the United States means business when it comes to its own backyard. China’s investments in the region however are not the United States main goal. As Foreign Policy magazine reported, the situation in Venezuela was “one of Tillerson’s top priorities” on his six day trip, and it is precisely in this aspect that Salvadoran help could have been important.

As expressed in one of my earlier columns, when in late June 2017 the United States and its allies at the Organization of American States (O.A.S) tried to formally condemn the situation in Venezuela, demand the liberation of political prisoners and a halt of government repression, it was El Salvador who led the charge against said proposition. The Salvadoran government acted not only as an ally but as a lobbyist in favor of Venezuela’s cause. The current Salvadoran-Venezuelan relationship is therefore strong and effective, as it shields Mr. Maduro’s administration internationally.

Had El Salvador offered more cooperation with the United States in this sense, the United States would have gained a very important ally when it comes to one of its top priorities in the region.

Prominent DC-based Salvadoran Lawyer Luis Parada agrees. In an interview done long before the T.P.S decision was announced, he condemned Mr. Martinez’ “hypocrisy” when asking for a “favor” (T.P.S extension) whilst hampering American efforts in the O.A.S. Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen noticed this and even questioned the fact that El Salvador receives American aid but still sides against the United States internationally.

The nature of this piece is speculative and it was intended to be that way. As stated earlier, the T.P.S decision was almost inevitable, but it was worth analyzing the leverage that the Salvadoran government possessed. There was no intention whatsoever in relinquishing ties with an oppressive regime that is unapologetically starving its citizens. What interests with Venezuela are more important than the well-being of 200,000 compatriots, only God knows. But what we know, however, is that the current Salvadoran government is willing to go to the extremes, against the interests of its own people, to protect them.

Andrés Carranza Betancourt is a passionate learner in an exuberant world. He was born and raised in El Salvador and attends Bates College where he Double Majors in Politics and Economics and is part of the institution’s debate team. He has written various political articles in his home country for nationally-acclaimed newspapers and is an avid football fan (and refuses to call the sport soccer). Andrés enjoys a good time with family and friends and is committed to his country’s progress.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.

The cover photo depicts a protest against President Donald Trump in the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis. The woman’s sign reads “In defense of TPS for Liberians, Salvadorans, and Haitians.” The photo was taken by Fibonacci Blue and is under a CC BY SA 2.0 license.

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