Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, is a federal program instituted in 1990 that enables eligible foreign-born individuals already in the United States to remain in the country on account of unsafe conditions in their country of origin. Over 400,000 individuals currently residing in the United States from 12 countries, including Haiti, Honduras, and El Salvador, hold this status.
The Trump administration temporarily ended protections for individuals from several countries, asserting that conditions had sufficiently improved that there was no legal rationale for letting them remain in the U.S. But implicit in this line of thinking is the idea that TPS recipients are a hindrance to U.S. interests rather than an asset and that the extension of TPS is a public burden. On the contrary, TPS recipients provide valuable contributions to domestic society and American foreign policy strategy.
For individuals fleeing violence and instability, the conferral of TPS protections has provided an opportunity to build a new life in the United States. In return, TPS holders contribute to American society in many of the same ways as would be expected of a native-born citizen. Although TPS requires short-interval renewals — typically every 6 to 18 months — many recipients have lived and worked in the U.S. for decades, given the ongoing violence and destruction in their home countries.
The average TPS recipient from Honduras and El Salvador has lived in the United States for over 20 years, meaning these individuals have built meaningful connections in their communities throughout the country. This integration can be seen in their civic participation: A 2017 survey of TPS holders from three countries long-designated as unsafe found that roughly 30 percent participate in community organizations — roughly the same level of participation as among native-born citizens.
The TPS program also makes meaningful contributions to the economy. More than 94 percent of TPS holders were in the labor force as of 2017, working in sectors ranging from retail to health care. According to some estimates, ending TPS for just El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti would lead to a loss of over $160 billion to U.S. GDP over a decade.
While TPS recipients positively impact the American economy, they also help support the economies of fragile states. This support comes in the form of remittances — payments that expatriates send back to family in their countries of origin.
In 2017, U.S.-based Salvadoran nationals contributed over $4.6 billion in remittances yearly to family in their home country, providing a direct lifeline to individuals in desperate need of monetary support. In the same time frame, U.S. foreign assistance allocated $88 million in funding to the country — with a substantial portion of this being used for more structural-level programs targeting improvement in areas such as public safety, good governance, and human rights. The other TPS states in the Americas also follow this pattern, with funds sent by U.S.-based individuals to family members outpacing the foreign assistance budget by a significant margin.
While individual remittances are not a replacement for structural-level U.S. international development programs, the funds many TPS holders provide to family abroad have an outsized benefit in maintaining some level of economic stability in their home countries. In 2017, individuals living in the U.S. sent over $148 billion in remittances around the globe, with such funds representing over 15 percent of the GDP of TPS states like Haiti, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The TPS program is also a valuable foreign policy tool. This is evidenced by the case of U.S. policy towards Venezuela, a state recently designated for TPS that has been subject to American sanctions since 2006. Throughout the Trump administration, however, these sanctions routinely expanded in both scale and scope targeting wide swathes of the Venezuelan economy as opposed to selectively targeting the regime of Nicolás Maduro. In large part, these actions were undertaken to spur the overthrow of the Maduro regime — a longtime political adversary of the United States.
Building off of this pressure, in 2019 the U.S. recognized an alternative government of Venezuela, led by embattled politician Juan Guaidó, in furthering its efforts to remove the Maduro regime from power. The wrangling between the two leaders intensified the nation’s already tenuous economic and political conditions and spurred even more Venezuelans to flee, with 5.4 million estimated to have departed as of January 2021.
A common talking point for Trump administration officials was to cite the Maduro regime’s lack of regard for the well-being of its citizens as a rationale for why a change was needed. Indeed, the Maduro regime has frequently failed to provide necessities such as food and medicine to its people, even relying on paramilitary gangs in attempts to quash dissent to the regime. One would expect the U.S. government to have been receptive to the plight of civilians forced to leave Venezuela for these very same reasons.
However, this was not the case for several years as the United States refused to extend TPS protections to Venezuelan migrants already on American soil. The Trump administration thereby undermined its own humanitarian rationale for pursuing Venezuelan regime change and abandoned exiles who needed its help.
On March 8 of this year, the Biden administration granted TPS eligibility to 323,000 Venezuelan migrants currently living in the United States, as per USCIS estimate. In doing so, the U.S. has provided a lifeline to individuals with no option to return to their home country, enabling them to contribute openly to both the domestic economy and American society at large. Equally important, however, is the value of this action in supporting the image of the United States internationally.
In many authoritarian states such as Venezuela, the United States is a ready scapegoat for any issue facing the given regime, regardless of its actual role in those issues. Setting aside the wisdom of pursuing regime change in Venezuela, granting TPS to individuals impacted by conflict and instability undermines narratives recurrent in Maduro propaganda that portray the American interest in Latin America as purely imperialist.
Undermining the credibility of such narratives contributes positively to the international standing of the United States among countries in the region and their citizens, fostering improved cooperation on other issues considered a priority by American policymakers such as immigration controls and the expansion of global trade.
While many TPS holders have lived in the United States for the majority of their lives, their legal status has always been tenuous — subject to deportation should a given presidential administration determine that conditions in their country of origin no longer warrant TPS protections. For decades, these individuals have lived with the fear that they would one day be forced to return to countries they fled long ago, which often lack either the capacity or the desire to reintegrate them.
On June 7, the Supreme Court ruled that TPS status itself does not constitute “admission” into the United States, blocking the pathway for TPS holders who did not enter the country legally to receive a green card. This ruling only adds to the uncertainty facing these populations, leaving congressional action as the sole means by which originally undocumented TPS holders may yet gain the ability to apply for permanent status.
While TPS is often framed as a humanitarian program rooted in traditions of American altruism, the program also serves an important strategic role for the United States. Through contributions to the domestic economy, support for stability in fragile states through remittances, and the provision of credibility to American foreign policy abroad, TPS can offer lifelines to at-risk populations that are decidedly in the U.S. national interest.
In the future, policymakers must continue to renew TPS for states facing instability, develop legal pathways for TPS holders currently ineligible for permanent status to achieve it, and extend TPS protections to additional countries as circumstances warrant.
In doing so, the United States can contribute to its national prosperity and security and to that of the international system as a whole.