There is little doubt that the “temporary” status that allowed more than 200,000 citizens of El Salvador to remain in the United States — until the Trump administration revoked that status this week — had largely become a fiction.
The Salvadorans were here because of the earthquakes that destroyed much of their Central American country in 2001, and they were able to extend their stay repeatedly. They built lives. They had children — American citizens born on U.S. soil — even amid the long-term uncertainty of their status.
Now they’ve been swept up in an ugly political battle that includes the “dreamers” and the president’s border wall. You can make a case that it’s only reasonable to tell them it’s time to leave. El Salvador has rebuilt from the earthquakes; even if the country still has huge problems (some of which the U.S. had a hand in creating), the United States isn’t obligated to help solve them. Or so the logic goes.
But if the Trump era really is about putting America first, evidence suggests they not only should stay. They should become citizens.
Those fleeing what Trump termed “shithole” countries like El Salvador value what the U.S. offers. Norwegians, whom he’d rather attract, don’t need it. Trump wants the Salvadorans gone by September 2019. His administration has ended a similar status for Haitians; the program for Hondurans comes up for renewal in spring. There is no reason to believe it will be extended.
If you judge by the values and behavior Americans idealize, these foreigners already are good Americans. If you decide on the basis of simple humanity, few Americans would send a neighbor or friend to live in one of the most violent places on Earth. If hard-headed economics is your thing, they contribute more to both countries by staying.
This report by the Center for Migration Studies includes some eye-opening data about them.
It’s clear many of the Salvadorans already were in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants before the earthquakes hit, and used the program to gain official status. But now, they’ve been in the country an average of 21 years.
What have they done in that time? Pretty much the same thing most Americans have done. The vast majority, 88 percent, work. The comparable number for the entire U.S. labor force is 63 percent. They are raising 192,000 children who are U.S. citizens.
One study, which includes smaller numbers of Haitians and Hondurans, indicates that 30 percent have mortgages, 87 percent speak some English (more than half speak it well). They tend to work in relatively low-paying jobs: the top five are construction, food service, landscaping, childcare and grocery stores. Still, more than four of every five stay above the poverty level.
Plus, many studies indicate that immigrants — undocumented or not — are less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes. That’s true even for poorly educated young men, who are most at risk.
So, to review: They’re more likely to have a job and less likely to have a rap sheet. Seems like the kind of person who can help keep America great.
Now, think about conditions in El Salvador. The State Department human rights report for 2016 cites problems including extortion, corruption and violence against women and girls. A report by the New York Times and the Salvadoran online publication El Faro found that gangs (who formed decades ago from a previous generation of young men deported by the U.S.) have a “menacing presence” in 247 of El Salvador’s 262 municipalities. The murder rate in 2015 was 103 per 100,000 residents; the U.S. figure was five.
In better circumstances, recent arrivals from the United States could bring an infusion of money and U.S. sensibilities about the rule of law. In practice, they would be targets for the gangs, who presume that if you’ve lived in the U.S., you must have money. Their kids would be subject to intimidation and violence — and possible recruitment into the gangs as a survival mechanism.
Odds are that people who seem familiar to us as neighbors or fellow citizens would die violently. This New Yorker investigation is largely about people deported to Mexico, but it’s easy to put the problem into a Salvadoran context.
Finally, besides their contribution to the U.S. economy, Salvadorans last year sent more than $4.5 billion back to El Salvador, a country whose entire economic output was $27 billion. Losing that money means more instability. More instability means more people trying to get out. Guess where they’ll go?
The fact that the Salvadorans still are here says more about the lack of a U.S. immigration policy than it does about them. Of course they want to stay. At the beginning of a rollercoaster week, Trump indicated he was open to a comprehensive deal on immigration reform. (If you think that’s right around the corner, I’ve got a statue in New York harbor to sell you.)
In the meantime, why not try something truly unusual — solve a piece of the problem in a way that benefits everyone involved. Let those who already act like Americans actually be Americans.