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How Should the US Treat Migrants when American Policy Affected the Countries They Fled?

Cristina Morales got the news that she was going to lose her legal right to live and work in the United States via text. The news devastated Morales. But the texts from her friends arrived while Morales, who was then 37, was at the Catholic school where she ran the after-school program. She believed that part of her job was to create a safe place for children, so she said nothing about her despair at work. “You need to have a happy face,” she told me. “No matter how bad you feel.”

Morales kept up the pretense in the car with her family on the way home. As her 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter sang in the back seat, she swallowed her tears and tried not to look at her husband. Their children had no idea that Morales was not an American citizen. She and her husband didn’t talk about her status because they didn’t want to taint the kids’ lives with fear. Only a handful of people knew that Morales was a beneficiary of a program called Temporary Protected Status (T.P.S.), which allows some immigrants to reside in the United States while their home countries are in crisis. About 411,000 immigrants had T.P.S. in 2020. More than half of them came from El Salvador, like Morales. The rest emigrated from Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria or Yemen.


In fact, T.P.S. was created precisely because the asylum process failed in the United States during the 1980s. For Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, the argument for granting T.P.S. holders permanent residency extends beyond any benefit they provide to America. “We have a moral obligation to the people of El Salvador,” he told me. As a congressional staff member in the 1980s, McGovern worked on the creation the original T.P.S. statute. Unlike many politicos, he remembers that T.P.S. was a response to America’s foreign policy in El Salvador and to its discrimination against Salvadoran refugees in the United States.

Some 2.3 million Hispanic Americans now trace their roots to El Salvador, more than to any other place except Mexico and the U.S. territory Puerto Rico. Many people point to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 as the catalyst for this immigration. But according to testimony given by a Census Department official before Congress in 1985, Salvadorans did not begin to leave their country en masse until April 1980, 15 years after that act was passed. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1980 there were an estimated 92,000 foreign-born Salvadorans living in the United States. By 1990, that number had rocketed to 459,000. Why did hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans move to the United States in a single decade? The answer to this question is the history of T.P.S.

In February 1980, the archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero, wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter, asking him not to move forward with a nearly $50 million aid package that would send U.S. military advisers and equipment to the civilian-military junta then governing El Salvador. “The contribution of your government,” Romero wrote, “instead of promoting greater justice and peace in El Salvador will without doubt sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their most fundamental human rights.”

During the 1970s, as the conflict between El Salvador’s various leftist groups and its conservative oligarchy escalated, paramilitary forces began assassinating anyone who seemed to pose a political threat: labor leaders, human rights workers, schoolteachers, peasants, clergy. In 1979 and 1980, political murders hit 800 a month in a country with the same population as Tennessee. Because Jesuits often sided with El Salvador’s poor and some kept records of human rights violations, they were hated by the country’s ultraright. One paramilitary slogan was: “Be a patriot! Kill a priest.” A month after Romero wrote his letter to Carter, the 62-year-old archbishop was murdered by a sniper during Mass.

Ignoring Romero’s objection, the Carter administration went ahead with aid for El Salvador in 1980. When President Ronald Reagan took office the following year, he made support of El Salvador’s junta a foreign-policy priority. Both administrations feared that without such support, El Salvador would go the way of Nicaragua, which overthrew the Somoza-family dictatorship and installed a socialist civilian-military government in 1979.

By 1992, the United States had sent more than $4 billion to the government of El Salvador, despite reports of torture, rape, killings and massacres. To military forces in El Salvador, the message was clear: Violating human rights would not affect their standing with the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. As Mark Danner documents in his 1994 book, “The Massacre at El Mozote,” U.S. military trained Salvadoran battalions and equipped them with bullets, M16s and military helicopters. This assistance abetted a 12-year civil war that began shortly before Romero’s assassination and killed at least 75,000 people. Thousands more were forcibly disappeared. Testimony to the United Nations’ Truth Commission for El Salvador attributed a vast majority of the violence to Salvadoran government and paramilitary forces.

Read entire article at New York Times