Washington • The Trump administration has until Monday to announce one of its most consequential immigration decisions — whether to extend a form of provisional residency known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for about 200,000 Salvadorans who have been living in the United States since at least 2001.
Both the Department of Homeland Security and the White House have signaled for months that they are determined to end the TPS protections as a matter of principle, potentially forcing the Salvadorans to leave or face deportation if they do not find another way to obtain legal residency.
A senior DHS official said Thursday that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has yet to make a determination, but the agency would have an announcement before Monday's deadline.
"The secretary has received advice from DHS staff and the State Department and is continuing to meet interested groups prior to making a decision," said the official, who was not authorized to discuss DHS deliberations.
"The law is clear on the standards for TPS and she intends to follow the law based on the facts," the official said.
In November DHS ended TPS for 60,000 Haitians who arrived after the 2010 earthquake, giving them an 18-month grace period. Nielsen is widely expected to do the same for the Salvadorans, though their sheer numbers — and the fact they have been in the United States for so long — makes the decision even more weighty.
Congress created TPS in 1990 to exempt foreigners from deportation if the executive branch determined that natural disasters or armed conflict made their countries too unstable or unsafe.
DHS officials say it is up to Congress to find a long-term solution. But experts say proposals to create a path for TPS recipients to obtain another form of long-term legal residency are likely to be subsumed into the rancorous debate over Trump's decision to cancel Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Salvadorans are by far the largest group of TPS recipients. They were allowed to stay after a pair of 2001 earthquakes, and their provisional residency has been renewed on an 18-month basis since then.
The largest number of Salvadoran TPS recipients live in the Washington, D.C., area, followed by Los Angeles, New York and Houston, estimates show.
Trump officials have argued the "temporary" intent of TPS has been abused, and the program was never meant as a way for foreign migrants to earn long-term residency after coming illegally or overstaying their visas.
They say the decision to extend TPS must be made on the basis of whether initial justifications for protection still exist - noting the United States already sends tens of thousands of deportees back to El Salvador each year.
In November, the State Department told DHS that conditions in Central America and Haiti had improved and that TPS was no longer warranted. DHS ended TPS for 2,500 Nicaraguan migrants shortly after, but then-Acting Secretary Elaine Duke gave a six-month extension to 57,000 Hondurans, frustrating White House officials who wanted her to end the program.
Other U.S. officials have signaled the administration is unlikely to extend Salvadorans' TPS. On Twitter, Jean Manes, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, called it "a tool for an emergency situation."
"Every year we have to justify that the current situation is the result of the 2001 earthquakes and it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so," Manes wrote in November.
Immigration advocates reject that claim, pointing to chronic gang violence and homicide rates that are among the world's highest. They also warn of the potentially destabilizing impact of 200,000 people returning home — an amount equal to approximately 3 percent of El Salvador's population.
The country depends heavily on cash sent home by Salvadorans living abroad - a record $4.5 billion in 2016, equal to 17.1 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
El Salvador's minister of public works, Gerson Martinez, who is a presidential candidate for the country's ruling FMLN party, said the government has tried to warn of the potential harm from ending TPS.
"We have had very active diplomacy trying to make the authorities of the United States see the consequences that an eventual decision of this type could have," Martinez said in an interview.
Oscar Chacón, co-founder and executive director of Alianza Americas, a U.S. nonprofit that advocates for immigrants, said Salvadorans with temporary status "should be acknowledged for what they have become" — effectively permanent residents of the United States.
"They have become very strongly embedded in U.S. society," Chacón said in a news conference this week, noting Salvadoran TPS holders have work permits, pay taxes and are regularly vetted by DHS to ensure they remain law-abiding.
Nearly one third own their homes, according to a 2016 survey, and more than 60 percent have at least one child who is a U.S. citizen.
Losing TPS "would be catastrophic for my family," said Edwin Murillo, a 41-year-old father of two reached by phone at his home in Texas.
Murillo listed a cascade of hardships. His driver's license would expire. He would lose his job at a convention center outside Dallas. He won't be able to renew his technician's license for the air conditioning repair business he runs on the side.
"My source of income practically would end," said Murillo. His parents and three older brothers in El Salvador have warned him it's not safe for his family to go back, he said. He hasn't seen them in nearly 20 years, but they depend on the $300 he sends home every month.
Murillo had studied business administration in El Salvador, but left in 1999 because he said jobs were scarce. He entered the United States on a visa, which he overstayed, and in 2001, following the earthquakes back home, he and his wife jumped at the chance to apply for TPS.
With their newfound stability, the couple bought a house outside Dallas and had two daughters, both U.S. citizens, now aged 10 and 4. TPS, he said, "gave us a chance to establish ourselves, and have the future we dreamed of."
The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow in Mexico City contributed to this report.