Originally published by The Washington Post
John D. Feeley was U.S. ambassador to Panama from 2016 until March. James D. Nealon was U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 2014 to 2017.
Thanks to President Trump’s recent Twitter-trashing of Honduran asylum seekers in a caravan comprised of a few hundred desperate migrants, mainly women and young people, odds are that a good portion of Americans are at least aware of the hardship from which Hondurans immigrants have fled.
Less known, however, is that the Department of Homeland Security recently terminated the temporary protected status of 57,000 Hondurans living in the United States. Now these immigrants — all of whom have been in the United States since at least 1999, many much longer — must return to Honduras by Jan. 5, 2020.
These immigrants were legally permitted to stay in the United States under a status that four successive Republican and Democrat administrations chose to maintain over 14 periodic reviews, based on the conditions of underdevelopment, poverty and crime that still exist in Honduras.
By definition, these Hondurans are not criminals; felons are not eligible for TPS. Those with the status who commit serious crimes lose it and are placed in deportation proceedings — as any criminal migrant should be.
The Center for Migration Studies reports that 85 percent of the Honduran TPS beneficiaries work legally; much higher than the national average. No surprise there, since they came here to work. They are mainly construction workers, truck drivers, gardeners and child-care workers, hustling to make an average salary of $24,000 a year. The Center for American Progress and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center estimate that losing these working Hondurans would result in a productivity loss of $11 billion in gross domestic product over the next decade. And their lost Social Security contributions would be more than $1.3 billion over 10 years.
Yet even if one ignores these economic contributions to our nation, think of this fact: They have an estimated 53,000 American citizen children who now face losing their law-abiding parents to deportation. Talk about unfair.
As former American ambassadors with long experience in Central America and with the TPS program, we have to ask: Why does the administration think this makes sense as an “America First” policy? Why would they take people who legally work, pay taxes, own homes, run businesses, employ others and obey the law, and shove them into the shadows?
The justifications for termination are twofold: The administration reminds us that temporary protected status was always meant to be temporary. It also argues that the original conditions for which TPS was granted — the devastating Hurricane Mitch in 1998 that killed more than 7,000 people in Honduras alone — no longer exist.
We understand how such arguments would make sense under a strict constructionist view. But that needs to be weighed against the reality that the pathologies underlying the hurricane’s aftermath — extreme violence, lack of economic opportunity and poor governance — are the same factors that today drive irregular migration such as the caravan to the United States.
The Trump administration’s decision also undermines the fact that the United States and Honduras are working closely together to stem these “push factors” of migration. A bipartisan consensus in Congress has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance that has already had some major successes. Honduras’s murder rate, once the highest in the world at 86 per 100,000 (compared to five per 100,000 in the United States), has dropped to the low-40s per 100,000.
Through brave work by the Honduran attorney general, civil society and the international community, particularly the United States, Honduras is attempting to reduce corruption and impunity. And the economyis growing, though not nearly fast enough to provide work to those living in Honduras (never mind to those losing TPS status who will be forced to return).
Put yourself in their shoes. Would you voluntarily return to the still-troubled country you left two decades ago when you have been striving to live the American Dream? Neither would we. And, let’s face it. This isn’t who we are. We are a nation of immigrants, and it’s in our interest that we keep that dream alive for future generations.
Canceling TPS takes hard-working, legal immigrants and puts them in the shadows. It ensures that U.S. taxpayer assistance, designed to help Hondurans see their future in Honduras and not in the United States, works against itself. Trump’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, recently visited Honduras and applauded the U.S. assistance programs designed to improve conditions there. When accused of “being a liberal,” she smiled and said, “I’m a conservative who understands that prevention saves us money in the long run.”
President Trump, you should listen to Ambassador Haley.