Not all storm victims are created equal. Just ask Puerto Rico. The mayor of San Juan had to practically beg the federal government for help following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria. It’s an indignity that was spared other hurricane victims in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.
“It has to do with inequality,” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos in an interview for his upcoming show, The Real America. “Puerto Rico is a colonial territory. We’ve been experiencing inequality for the better part of 100 years.”
Inequalities are always exacerbated by natural disasters. As storm victims struggle to put their lives back together, those with resources can rebuild or relocate much faster than those without. Recovery becomes a privilege that’s not afforded equally to everyone.
For many Puerto Ricans, recovering from Hurricane Maria means relocating to the U.S. mainland. As absurdly anachronistic as it is for the U.S. to have colonial territories in the 21st century, it gives Puerto Ricans the right to move to the mainland legally. And they’re doing so in record numbers. The mayor of San Juan says an estimated 78,000 Puerto Ricans have already left the island in the first month since the storm. To put that statistic in perspective, a total of 90,000 Puerto Ricans left the island for the mainland in 2015—a single-year record at the time. Hurricane Maria has accelerated an exodus that was already in progress, and it’s unlikely to end anytime soon.
But as one group of hurricane victims arrives on U.S. shores, another group is being evicted.
The Trump administration this week decided to cancel an immigration status known as TPS, or Temporary Protected Status, for thousands of Nicaraguan storm victims who were allowed into the country two decades ago following Hurricane Mitch. The monster storm hit Central America as a Category 5 hurricane in 1998, then squatted over the mountains of Nicaragua and Honduras for two weeks, dumping record levels of rain that claimed more than 11,000 lives and left another 2.7 million homeless.
The U.S. responded to the catastrophic hurricane by granting TPS to 5,349 Nicaraguans and 86,163 Hondurans. Subsequent natural disasters in El Salvador and Haiti added more countries and immigrants to the TPS rosters, which at one point swelled to over 413,000 people, including people from Africa and the Middle East.
Now the Trump administration is threatening to end the entire program. Nicaraguans were the first to get dragged onto the chopping block this week after the Trump administration determined that the Central American country “no longer continues to meet the conditions” for TPS designation. They were given until January 2019 to change their legal status or leave the U.S.
Twenty years after many Nicaraguans lost their homes to Hurricane Mitch, Donald Trump—a Category 5 blowhard in his own right—is displacing them once again.
Up next are some 58,000 Haitians, whose TPS cases will be determined by Thanksgiving. The TPS status for Hondurans and Salvadorans will be decided next year. In total, some 325,000 legal migrants living in the U.S. with TPS status are at risk of being ousted from a country that most of them have called home for nearly two decades.
To be fair, Nicaragua’s Sandinista government is partially to blame for Nicaraguans getting ousted first. Homeland Security says the Sandinista government didn’t even request TPS renewal—a shockingly negligent omission, considering it’s something the Nicaraguan government has done every 18 months for the past two decades. It’s not like Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega forgot about the renewal deadline. In fact, he discussed the matter just last week with the President of Honduras, according to Sandinista media outlets. Nicaraguan embassy sources didn’t return requests for comment.
But Sandinista folly doesn’t let Trump off the hook. The Trump government’s decision to suddenly uproot thousands of law-abiding Nicaraguans is cruel, disruptive, and entirely unnecessary. It’s another case of the Trump punching down, putting politics before people, and demagoguery before common sense.
“This was an opportunity for Trump and his team to show some toughness on the immigration question. They had to make a political point using either Nicaragua or Honduras, and it wasn’t a tough call. Honduras has more Republican friends and fewer enemies than Nicaragua,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “This is yet another example that the U.S. immigration system is broken. If you give someone protection for a certain amount of time it should become permanent. The idea of sending someone back after 20 years is unconscionable.”
While TPS has not received the same media attention as DACA, in many cases the recipients don’t look that different. A report by the Center for Migration Studies found that approximately 68,000 people—or 22% of the TPS population from Central America and Haiti—arrived in the United States under the age of 16.
Forcing these people to back to a country they left as children is just mean.
“TPS recipients may not seem as cuddly and warm as DACA recipients, but these people deserve better,” says Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, a former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the U.S. who helped to originally secure TPS for his countrymen 19 years ago.
Aguirre says it’s “disappointing” that the Trump administration would target productive and hard-working immigrants who have gone through all the paperwork to live here legally. “This is the wrong group of people to pick on,” the former diplomat said.
It’s also a radical departure from the spirit of America.
“This is not consistent with the generosity that the American people have shown in the past,” Aguirre told me this week in a phone interview. “Those affected by this will view it as a cynical and cruel move.”
Though there was never any legal expectation that TPS would be extended forever, Aguirre says there was an “implicit understanding” that it would eventually lead to an opportunity for permanent status. And for some people it did. Those who married U.S. citizens or found another path to legal permanent residency have adjusted their status. But many others have found that road impossible to navigate.
That’s because TPS, like DACA, was not designed to be a bridge to permanent residency or citizenship. In fact, it was explicitly designed not to be.
“In the Immigration Act of 1990, Congress made it extremely difficult for later Congresses to ‘adjust’ TPS groups to lawful permanent resident status by requiring that any legislation to this effect be approved by a three-fifths majority of the Senate,” Donald Kerwin, executive director for Center for Migration Studies, told Fusion in an email.
Kerwin agrees that it makes little sense to dismantle the TPS program entirely.
“On average, El Salvadoran and Honduran TPS recipients have resided in the United States for more than 20 years, and Haitians more than 16 years. They have developed strong family, economic and other ties to the United States, and contribute very significantly to our communities and nation,” Kerwin said. “In the circumstances, the Trump administration’s threat to turn legally present persons into undocumented persons or into asylum-seekers makes little sense, but it would be consistent with the administration’s attacks on legal immigrants and legal immigration programs overall.”
Killing TPS also makes no sense economically. A recent policy report by the Immigration Legal Resource Center estimates that ending TPS for El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti alone would result in a $45.2 billion GDP loss, $6.9 billion in losses to Social Security and Medicare contributions over the next decade, and $967 million in turnover costs for employers.
Curiously, Puerto Rican storm victims could ultimately play an important role in helping the U.S. change course from its mindless and cruel immigration policies under Trump.
The Puerto Rican diaspora overwhelmingly votes Democrat. And although the rules of colonialism prevent Boricuas from voting in U.S. presidential elections while living on their island, once they move to the mainland they automatically get full voting rights. So by migrating en masse, Puerto Ricans could have serious implications for Trump’s re-election bid in 2020, especially in Florida.
“They’re going to vote Democrat,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told Jorge Ramos. “Trump would be better off if Puerto Ricans stayed where they are.”
If she’s right, Trump could end up being the last victim to lose his house as a result of Hurricane Maria.
Don’t miss Jorge Ramos’ The Real America, airing on Fusion Nov. 21.