Central America is a region that suffers from frequent natural disasters, including earthquakes, tropical storms and volcanic eruptions. Guatemala has recently suffered from each of these disasters and this nation where over 50 percent of the population lives in poverty is having a difficult time recovering.
In order to help Guatemala recover from these natural disasters, President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano should move to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to the estimated 1.5-1.7 million Guatemalans living in the United States.
According to Guatemala’s central bank, Guatemalans working in the US sent over $4bn in remittances to their families living in Guatemala between January and November, a 9 percent increase over the same period in 2011. The Guatemalan people cannot afford the loss of their second largest source of national revenue (remittances) or the increased costs associated with the return of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of deported Guatemalans from the US.
The Pacaya volcano outside Guatemala City erupted in late May 2010. Its eruption sent ashes flying into the sky and down into the departments of Guatemala, Sacatepequez and Escuintla. President Alvaro Colom declared a state of public calamity as the eruption killed two people, closed the national airport and left thousands homeless.
Two days later, lahars, landslides and widespread flooding brought on by Tropical Storm Agatha left over 250 people dead or missing. Its heavy rainfall worsened the emergency situation brought on by Pacaya’s eruption. After suffering a serious drought in 2009, Guatemala was now suffering through its worst rainy season in over 60 years.
TPS for Guatemalans
Following the devastating effects of Pacaya and Agatha, President Colom petitioned the US government to suspend the detention and deportation of Guatemalan nationals living in the US for 18 months. He also officially requested Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for those Guatemalans living in the US as of June 10.
The Secretary of Homeland Security has the authority to “designate a foreign country for TPS due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately”.
The Secretary can grant TPS because of ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, an epidemic, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions.
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TPS would provide a temporary reprieve for the 1.5-1.7 million Guatemalans living in the US, perhaps as many as 60 or 70 percent without the proper documentation, until the country was able to recover from these back-to-back disasters. They would not be removed from the country because of their immigration status, would be able to obtain a work permit and may be granted travel authorisation.
TPS has previously been granted to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Haiti following natural disasters. Nicaragua and Honduras received TPS after the devastating effects of 1999’s Hurricane Mitch. El Salvador and Haiti were awarded TPS after 2001 and 2010 earthquakes. In the past, TPS has also been extended to Sudan, Somalia and Syria.
In July 2010, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), a longtime friend of the people of Central America and possibly the next Secretary of State, called on President Obama to grant TPS to those Guatemalans living in the US.
Two months later, in September 2010, Guatemala was struck by another natural disaster when over 50 Guatemalans died from flooding and landslides caused by a tropical depression. Several people were killed when the buses on which they were travelling were overturned by landslides. First responders and civilians who raced to the scene to rescue the victims were themselves killed when the mountain-side gave way once again.
However, President Obama failed to respond to the President of Guatemala’s request by year-end.
A series of earthquakes
In September 2011, Guatemala was struck by a series of earthquakes that left over 15 dead. Then, in October, two weeks of uninterrupted rain left at least 38 dead, five missing, 18 injured and over 500,000 others adversely affected. Forty percent of the country’s roads were damaged. Estimates put damage to the country’s infrastructure and agricultural production at $250m.
Then in November, a powerful 7.4 earthquake struck Guatemala, killing approximately 50 people and causing another $200m in damages.
Obama has so far failed to respond to TPS requests from both President Colom and President Otto Perez Molina. Instead, he has consistently touted how many illegal immigrants have been deported under his watch – another 409,849 in 2012.
In 2011, nearly 31,000 Guatemalans were deported from the US. As of a few weeks ago, the number of Guatemalans deported in 2012 was approaching 38,000. Nearly 30,000 Americans have signed the “We the People” petition on the White House’s website to encourage President Obama to consider TPS for Guatemala.
Obama should move to extend Temporary Protected Status to our Guatemalan neighbours so that the country can better recover from these natural disasters without the additional challenge of dealing with the deportation of thousands of their countrymen.
TPS isn’t a magical solution to the migratory challenges that confront the US and its southern neighbours. The US still needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.
The US and Latin America should also work to design a more humane migratory system for the 21st century. However, those will both take time. Right now, TPS is one tool that the executive branch has at its disposal and one that can have a positive effect on the lives of millions of people in Guatemala and in the United States.
Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.