Why Did Guatemala Ask for TPS for Its Citizens in the U.S.?

By Dan Cadman on July 10, 2018

The Washington Examiner is reporting that there is no signal yet on whether or not the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will act favorably or adversely toward a request by Guatemala to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to its nationals.

It is ironic that the country's officials made the request just on the cusp of a trip by Vice President Mike Pence to the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras), the three countries beyond Mexico that have been sending forth hundreds of thousands to our borders, including family units and minors. Pence's trip was with the avowed purpose of conferring with the relevant governments on the importance of taking concrete steps to halt, or at least abate, the flow. That Guatemala would time its request to precipitate Pence's visit suggests that he will gain little traction. I don't know about others, but I took that as a foregone conclusion.

Obama administration Vice President Joe Biden also made such a call on the three nations at the beginning of 2016, at the height of public attention toward the illegal entry of minors and families, and yet here we are two and a half years later with no significant change in the flow. There just isn't much reason for these governments to modify their behaviors, and they are betting that despite the tough talk, nothing will change on our side of the equation in the way migrants are treated after illegal entry: prolonged stays, lots of lawsuits, ultimate release from detention, and no actual removals. It is unlikely we will even suspend the millions of dollars of aid we provide them for, among other things, policing their borders to prevent the outflows.

Guatemala's request is ostensibly a result of the recent Fuego Volcano eruption. News reports indicate the number of dead at just under 100 and the number missing at somewhat below 200. Catastrophic death is always a tragedy, but in a nation of 15,460,732, death on that scale doesn't seem to amount to a calamity beyond the country's ability to cope, which is the context in which grants of TPS should be viewed. In fact, as my colleague Kausha Luna has noted, this is Guatemala's fourth attempt at requesting TPS for its citizens.

Seen in this light, it would appear that what Guatemala really wants is simply to shift its burden for the ultimate return and care of its displaced population to the United States. Ideally, this would be via some kind of legal, if not permanent, status in the United States. Now that hopes of a broad-based amnesty — with liberal arrival dates that might have covered many of its nationals — are dead, TPS is the only option, and, if administered as it has been by multiple administrations in the past, would virtually ensure years and years of covered protection, usually long beyond any reasonable nexus to the precipitating event or act of God that was the basis for the grant.

And from the point of view of countries south of our border, including the Northern Triangle and Mexico, the longer their nationals reside in the United States, legally or otherwise, the more cash will flow into their economies through the magic of untaxed remittances sent home to help families left behind. This is a generous and caring act on the part of people who do so, but from a financial perspective, isn't so heartwarming for Americans — the billions upon billions that flow out in remittances are dollars permanently lost to our economy. Why would governments of the receiving nations want to see this lagniappe ended by halting the continued flow of its poverty-stricken citizens northward?

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), annual remittances to Guatemala reached $7.27 billion in 2016, 99 percent of it as personal money transfers, most from the United States according to World Bank research.

From a hard-eyed point of view, the more poor people Guatemala can get rid of, the better off it will be. Money flows in and concurrently there is less pressure to care for the poor. Guatemala's elite can continue to live at the top of the rigorous hierarchical pyramid with considerably less fear of revolutionary foment or crime, while endemic corruption continues at the lower levels by those who aspire to the top.

But the TPS tide seems to have flowed out with the arrival of the Trump administration. It has been systematically examining the multiple existing grants of TPS, some decades long, and announcing termination dates generous enough to permit the various nationals to prepare for their departures (although that seems unlikely). In response, different affected nationals, supported by advocacy groups, have filed lawsuits aimed at finding judges amenable to enjoining the government from ending the program. This cannot be lost on the government: Suing for what began as an act of grace, a discretionary gift, when the gift-giving comes to an end is much akin to biting the hand that has fed you.

This is not, in my view, an auspicious long-term strategy. It will make the current and future administrations think long and hard about the wisdom of granting TPS, particularly in cases like Guatemala's that aren't particularly persuasive, if it will end up spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars and litigation effort defending itself further up the road. So if I were a betting man, I would not be placing money on DHS granting Guatemala what it wishes.

On the other hand, all of this represents a stalemate in current homeland security strategies where securing the southern border is concerned. The current formulation just isn't working. No border wall; no removals; a stymie of lawsuits designed to frustrate immigration enforcement; no E-verify to ensure that jobs go only to those lawfully authorized; no taxes or penalties on remittances; and, last of all, recalcitrant and unwilling partners south of our border who provide lip service but understand that, to date, we are a paper tiger where the issue of migration is concerned.