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U.S. Extends Temporary Work Permits for El Salvador Immigrants

Eager to seal a deal with El Salvador to curb a surge of migrants to the southwestern border, the Trump administration on Monday agreed to special legal protections that would allow an estimated 250,000 Salvadorans to stay and work in the United States for an additional year.

The announcement walks back an earlier decision to strip Temporary Protected Status in January from these Salvadoran immigrants, many of whom have resided lawfully in the United States for nearly two decades.

All told, about 400,000 immigrants from around the world are beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status — a program that allows immigrants from countries that have suffered from natural disasters or other urgent situations to live and work in the United States. It was intended to be temporary, and President Trump after his election immediately began trying to roll it back for countries whose residents had benefited from its provisions for many years.

Monday’s decision marks a concession to Salvadorans who have built lives in the United States and sent billions of dollars in American wages home. It comes as part of a package of agreements the Trump administration has negotiated in recent weeks aimed at winning Central America’s cooperation in slowing the movement of migrants fleeing violence and poverty.

The United States and Guatemala have also signed a cooperation agreement to reduce the number of Central American asylum seekers traveling to the United States. Once the accord is enforced, the United States will begin returning asylum seekers who traveled through Guatemala back to that country, where they can choose to apply for asylum or to return home.

In March, President Trump suspended aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to exercise additional pressure. This month, the president announced he would restore some aid to those countries after they agreed to take in asylum seekers as requested.

These agreements, in combination with policies that have pressured Mexico to shelter more asylum applicants, have contributed to a steep drop in unauthorized immigration in recent months.

The number of migrants taken into custody at the southwestern border peaked at 144,200 in May; that number was down to 52,000 in September, though numbers are often down during the hot summer months.

Monday’s agreement with El Salvador called for a new law enforcement partnership to identify air passengers linked to terrorism or to narcotics, weapons or currency smuggling. Under its provisions, the United States will send American law enforcement officials to help “mentor” their police, border security and immigration counterparts in El Salvador.

But its most talked-about provision is the one that allows Salvadorans who have Temporary Protected Status to legally work in the United States until Jan. 4, 2021 — a year later than the deadline set earlier by the Trump administration.

They could conceivably be allowed to remain longer because the order also guarantees that Salvadorans will have 365 days from the conclusion of litigation over the program — whenever that is — to “repatriate” back to their home country.

“The administration’s goal is to create an orderly and responsible process to repatriate Salvadorans and help them return home,” the news release said. Immediately ordering all 250,000 people enrolled in the program to return home, it said, “could spark another mass migration to the U.S. and reinvigorate the crisis at the southern border.”

But critics who successfully sued the government to win an injunction over the rollbacks in Temporary Protected Status said the administration was using vulnerable immigrants to achieve its border security goals.

“This suggests that the government is using the program that protects tens of thousands of people as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with other countries,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which is representing immigrants from six countries in a lawsuit to reinstate the program.

The Salvadoran diaspora in the United States is by far the largest of any Central American nation, and it provides a hefty economic lifeline for that country. In 2018, remittances from Salvadorans living abroad, most of them in the United States, totaled nearly $5.4 billion, equivalent to about 20 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.

Salvadorans have also become an important part of the United States economy. Roughly one-fifth of all construction workers in Washington, D.C., are immigrants with Temporary Protected Status, most of them Salvadorans.

Under the humanitarian program, some Salvadorans were granted the status to stay in the United States after a pair of devastating earthquakes struck their country in 2001. In the ensuing years, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations extended the protection several times.

The deal announced on Monday was a major political victory for El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, who took office in June. Mr. Bukele has sought to strengthen his country’s relationship with the United States, its largest trading partner and the home of more than 1.4 million Salvadoran emigrants. At the same time, he has aggressively lobbied the Trump administration for an extension of the protected status guarantees.

Mr. Bukele, a businessman who has cast himself as a iconoclastic reformer, has taken pains when dealing with the Trump administration to disavow his predecessors’ embrace of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. He has also sought to position El Salvador as a welcoming place for American investment and to distance his nation from Guatemala and Honduras, two troubled neighbors that have also sent large numbers of immigrants to the United States.

Most importantly, perhaps, Mr. Bukele has thrown his support behind Mr. Trump’s efforts to decrease migration from Central America, including signing an agreement last month, similar to the one negotiated with Guatemala, that would allow the United States to require asylum seekers who passed through El Salvador on their journey to the American border to apply for asylum there first.

“They said that it was impossible — that the Salvadoran government couldn’t do anything,” Mr. Bukele wrote on Twitter on Monday in announcing the protected status extension. “But we knew that our allies would not leave us on our own.”

In seeking to cancel many of its protections, the administration argued in 2018 that the Temporary Protected Status program had turned into a quasi-permanent benefit for hundreds of thousands of people.


But a year ago, a federal court in California temporarily blocked the administration from terminating the protection for immigrants from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti or El Salvador. Subsequent lawsuits effectively retained protections for people from Honduras and Nepal under the same terms.


The government then announced that it would abide by the injunction, and extended the program to January 2020 for migrants from those countries as part of negotiations with the A.C.L.U. A decision on the appeal could come in the coming months.

Enrollees from the other countries still face the January 2020 cutoff for the program.

As news spread about the announcement on Monday, Salvadorans across the United States expressed relief that they would not have to leave, or resort to living in the shadows if they chose to remain illegally.

“I am very happy,” said Veronica Lagunas, 41, a Salvadoran who works overnight cleaning offices in Los Angeles. She has two children born in the United States and owns a mobile home.

Ms. Lagunas had said last year that she would risk arrest and deportation to stay in the United States if her Temporary Protected Status were to end. But without the work permit that comes with the status, she would lose the job she has held for more than a decade, and her family would no longer have medical insurance or other benefits.