A series of paintings depict Europeans fleeing religious persecution in the 1600s, alongside modern-day immigrants from South and Central America. So begins a short documentary on The Immigrant’s Promise, partially sponsored by Stan Marek, the CEO of the national construction firm Marek Brothers based in Houston.
It’s an issue that hits close to home for Marek. The entrepreneur says he’s gravely concerned that 30 of his employees could be deported next year, as President Trump moves to end a protection status program for those who fled Nicaragua, Haiti, and, most recently, El Salvador. In the event that they lose legal status, Marek says, “I’d have no choice but to terminate them, and that’s ridiculous,” referring to the construction workers who are presently protected under the program. “It certainly would hurt the bottom line,” he adds, as he anticipates a labor shortage that would force the firm to turn down projects.
Marek is among the many entrepreneurs who are balking at the Trump administration’s approach to immigration policy, specifically the Temporary Protected Status program, or TPS. On Monday, the government said as many as 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants must leave the country by September 2019, or risk deportation, as it moves to end the decades-old policy. The news comes just weeks after more than 45,000 Haitians lost similar protections granted after a devastating 2010 earthquake, and as Hondurans face the same prospect. Nicaraguans, meanwhile, lost their protection in November.
Congress enacted TPS in 1990, with the original goal of helping those fleeing war and natural disasters at home. These immigrants have built homes, launched businesses, and raised children stateside, and work in various industries such as construction, landscaping, food, and retail, according to data from the nonprofit Center for Migration Studies. Generally speaking, those with protected status are concentrated in California, Texas, Florida, New York, Virginia, and Maryland.
Because TPS has allowed some migrants to live and work for more than 20 years in the U.S., the policy change stands to hurt not just families but also niche segments of the economy. A new report from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a San Francisco law firm, estimates a loss of as much as $45.2 million in gross domestic product. Marek notes that Salvadorans, in particular, represent a large share of the already-thinning talent pool for construction, and the loss of such workers could decimate the industry.
Shapiro & Duncan, a plumbing, heating, and cooling firm based in Rockville, Maryland, is similarly concerned over the fate of TPS programs. “I hope we can work through Congress to create pathways to permanent status and even citizenship, because these workers have become a part of the fiber that makes this country great,” says Mark Drury, vice president of business development at the roughly $115 million company.
Overall, he estimates that Shapiro & Duncan employs 14 protected immigrants–plumbers, fitters, welders, and technicians–the majority of whom are Salvadoran. Should those workers lose their legal status, he, like Marek, would be forced to fire them, which he expects would lead to a not-insignificant loss in sales. “If the labor force is reduced, our capacity to produce revenue is also reduced,” Drury explains.
Entrepreneurs often invest in cultivating special talent, and if and when they’re forced to let them go, that’s money down the drain. Marek points out that his business, which has invested millions in helping to train special project managers, cannot simply go out and replace them with American workers. As Drury puts it: “There is no bench of people waiting to come work in the construction industry.”
The Trump administration, however, sees it differently. Many conservatives have argued that the TPS programs allow businesses to abuse the system by relying on lower-wage, foreign labor–similar to arguments the government has made in favor of H-1B visa reforms. “In practice, the true beneficiaries of TPS were not temporary visitors, but rather people who had entered the United States illegally,” suggests the right-leaning Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit.
Drury, who has received a swath of hate mail in the days following an interview with The New York Times, bristles at the notion that he takes jobs away from legal citizens. “There’s an unfortunate misconception that people with TPS are illegal immigrants,” he says. “They’re not. They are the best of the best as far as immigrants, because they’ve had to stay crystal clean in order to renew their status.”
He further suggests that the arguments for ending the TPS program smatter of racism. “We didn’t send the Irish back after the potato famine,” he continues. “This country was built on a wave of immigrants, and this is no different. Unfortunately, the previous immigrants don’t like the new ones.”
The argument for ending the program, to be sure, is that TPS was always intended to be temporary. The Department of Homeland Security says the conditions that initially triggered the protection for Salvadorans–namely, a pair of 2001 earthquakes–no longer exist. “The decision to terminate TPS for El Salvador was made after a review of the disaster-related conditions upon which the country’s original designation was based,” said DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a recent statement. “Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated.”
Still, earthquake damage notwithstanding, there are other factors that could make returning dangerous and even lethal for immigrants. Gang violence continues to run rampant in El Salvador, where there was nearly one homicide per hour in the first three months of 2016. As Veronica Lagunas, a Salvadoran refugee, recently told The Times: “The infrastructure may be better now, but the country is in no condition to receive us.”