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By ending ‘temporary protected status’ for half a million people, Trump has probably increased illegal migration

Since taking office, President  Trump has shown a firm commitment to reducing the number of immigrants in the United States, in keeping with his campaign promises. Some of his attempts toward this end have run into difficulties, as with the border wall and the family separation policy. But others have been successful. In particular, by refusing to extend a federal program known as temporary protected status (TPS), the Trump administration has terminated legal protection for nearly half a million immigrants from Sudan and Central America.

Most recently, the administration announced in January its decision to end TPS for roughly 200,000  Salvadorans — removing both their protection from deportation and their ability to work legally in the United States. Many of the immigrants affected by Trump’s terminations have lived in the United States for more than a decade.

Here are four things to know about the TPS program and its effects on migration to the United States.

1. Democrats created the program with Republican support

Every president since World War II has protected immigrant groups facing hardship — even when they did not meet the standard definition of a refugee as established by the 1951 U.N. Convention. President Harry S. Truman used his executive authority to allow groups that had been displaced by Nazi Germany to qualify for resettlement in the United States. John F. Kennedy protected Cubans who fled to the United States during and after the Cuban revolution. Ronald  Reagan suspended deportation proceedings for Nicaraguans who fled that country’s revolution in 1987.

During the 1980s, both congressional lawmakers and the public grew concerned about what they often charged was arbitrary — and increasingly political — use of what was then called the Extended Voluntary Departure (EVD) program, which gave the attorney general latitude in deporting citizens. Most notably, Democratic legislators and migrant advocacy groups were concerned when the Reagan administration refused to grant Salvadorans either refugee status or EVD. In response, Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1990, which created TPS.

TPS provides temporary legal status (but not a path to citizenship) to foreign nationals present in the United States from certain countries, designated in ways discussed below. The law shields these migrants from deportation proceedings even if they arrived in the United States illegally, and allows them to work legally.

2. Presidents from both parties have regularly extended TPS protections — until the Trump administration

The law gives the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in consultation with the president and the secretary of state, the power to grant TPS status to migrants from countries experiencing armed conflict, natural disasters  or other temporary and extraordinary circumstances. TPS status protects all foreign nationals from the designated countries as long as they file the proper paperwork and officials do not consider them a risk to U.S. security.

DHS grants TPS for renewable two-year periods. Since 1990, both Democratic and Republican administrations have granted TPS to foreign nationals from 22 countries, typically regularly renewing their protection.

The Trump administration has broken sharply with past practice and ended TPS for foreign nationals from Nicaragua, Haiti, Sudan, Nepal and Honduras, even though those countries have not yet recovered from conflict or natural disasters. The Trump administration has renewed TPS status for Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

3. TPS protection increases immigrants’ financial support for families back home

Drawing on a global sample of low- and middle-income countries — defined by the World Bank as having GNP per capita of less than $12,736 — we find that TPS increases the amount of remittances sent to the country of origin, nearly tripling the number in some cases. That’s because TPS-protected immigrants in the United States are allowed to work legally. That increases their average wages above immigrants here without working papers. Higher wages allow the protected migrants to send more money to families back home.

For example, in 2017,  Salvadorans living in the United States, the largest group of TPS recipients, sent more than $5 billion to El Salvador in remittances — making up more than 18 percent of that country’s GDP.

These estimates are conservative, based on a statistical model that controls for other factors that research has shown to be related to remittances, including the recipient country’s wealth, exchange rate, level of education and experience of natural disasters and civil conflicts. They are probably underestimates, because data on remittances reflects only recorded transactions, not money transferred outside of banking and other official channels.

4. Ending TPS will increase — not decrease — flows of undocumented migrants to the United States

The Trump administration argues that ending TPS designations will decrease the flow of undocumented migrants across the border. Our research suggests precisely the opposite.

Some models of migration hold that emigration allows families to decrease their households’ economic risk. Sending a family member to the city or to another country to send back money helps familial income become more stable. That leaves less incentive for more family members to move abroad.

Our findings suggest that TPS — or other policies that increase remittances to migrants’ homelands — may help stem migration into the United States. Many argue that a better way to stem immigration would be helping Latin American countries to develop economically and to reduce violence. Interestingly, recently released documents from the Department of Homeland Security suggest that the White House received several reports from its own analysts suggesting that ending TPS might increase illegal immigration to the United States.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that DHS had not renewed TPS for Somalia, South Sudan, or Syria. We regret the error. 

David Leblang (@realDLeblangis a professor of politics and public policy at the University of Virginia as well as a senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs.  

Ankita Satpathy is a fourth-year student in the politics honors program at the University of Virginia.

Alexa Iadarola is a masters of public policy student at the University of Virginia’s Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy.

Ben Helms is a PhD student in the department of politics at the University of Virginia.

Kelsey Hunt holds a masters in public policy from the University of Virginia.

Eric Xu is a fourth-year student in the politics honors program at the University of Virginia.

Rebecca Brough is a research assistant at the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame.

Mahesh Rao is a research scientist at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.