Standing before a banner that said “Protecting American Lives” at a rally on Long Island in July, President Donald Trump railed against MS-13, a gang with ties to El Salvador and a foothold in the local community. Trump called gang members “animals,” who had “transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.”
“For many years, they exploited America’s weak borders and immigration enforcement,” Trump said about gangs like MS-13.
Trump may have been considering this perceived weakness on Monday, when his administration announced that it would end temporary protected status for Salvadoran immigrants that arrived in the U.S. after earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001. The administration is giving the nearly 200,000 Salvadorans previously protected from deportation until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the country or obtain a green card.
Revoking TPS is the latest decision that could alienate Latino voters from the president and the Republican Party, after the administration decided to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year. This could provide an opportunity for Democrats to attract Latino voters, but it may also further mobilize Trump’s anti-immigration base.
“This action raises the possibility, even the likelihood, that the end of the protected status will become a rallying cry for Democrats and particularly for Latino voters and others sympathetic to their situation,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
In New York, which is home to 16,200 Salvadoran TPS beneficiaries, Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the state Department of State on Tuesday to offer additional resources to affected communities.
However, the political calculations for both parties are more complex on Long Island, which is home to a Salvadoran population so large that El Salvador has a consulate in Brentwood, in Suffolk County. Brentwood, which Levy said had the largest Latino population in the state outside of New York City, is one of the communities that has struggled with the presence of MS-13. But Long Island is also home to a solid base of Trump voters, many of whom cheered him at his July rally and will be supportive of the decision to revoke TPS.
This tension played out in miniature during the Nassau County executive campaign, Levy noted, when the state Republican Committee released a mailer supporting candidate Jack Martins that depicted tattooed, dark-skinned gang members. The ad charged that Martins’ Democratic opponent, Laura Curran, would “roll out the welcome mat for gangs like MS-13!” There was an enormous backlash to the ad, including by Long Island Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice who called the mailer “fearmongering.” Levy said the controversy helped motivate higher minority turnout in the 2017 election, with Curran ultimately winning.
However, Latinos have lower rates of voter registration than most other demographic groups, which dampens mobilization efforts. Suffolk County is also more conservative than Nassau County, having supported Trump in 2016.
“Trump keeping his promise on immigration could rally the base, which is still considerable in Suffolk County,” Levy said.
The Trump administration’s actions could raise a dilemma for Long Island’s two Republican congressmen, Reps. Pete King and Lee Zeldin, who will have to balance the priorities of the Latino communities in their districts, including the Salvadoran populations, with the simmering anti-immigrant base.
Long Island Republicans are being forced to either distance themselves from or ally themselves with Trump, pleasing and alienating different segments of the population.
“Short-term, it’s clear that Trump’s actions will become one more rallying cry for Democrats and immigration rights activists of all stripes, just as it will become one for Trump’s anti-immigrant base,” Levy said.
In a statement provided to City & State, Zeldin appeared to back the administration, writing that “with El Salvador no longer suffering from the impacts of this 2001 hurricane, we are reminded that this program exists to provide temporary status, not permanent status. This 17-year situation underscores the deep flaws of our nation’s immigration system, one that must be fixed through legislative channels.” (Salvadorans were granted TPS in 2001 because of a pair of earthquakes. TPS was extended to Nicaraguans in 1999 due to the effects of a hurricane.)
The political calculations are especially complicated for King, whose district includes parts of Nassau and Suffolk counties. Levy said King has long been a “flashpoint” on immigration, having taken hard-line stances on immigration reform in the past. But compared to Trump, King seems less of a “threatening figure.” King took a more conciliatory stance than Zeldin in this case.
A spokesperson for King said that he “supports an extension and a long-term strategy for TPS individuals from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti.” Trump ended TPS status for Haitians and Nicaraguans last year, and will consider doing so for Hondurans this year. King’s spokesperson referred to a letter that King sent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in November, urging the administration to extend TPS for citizens from Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras.
“With approximately 1/3 of the New York state TPS population living in my district, it is clear that an abrupt end to TPS and the removal of thousands of lawfully employed individuals will cause significant economic harm to these U.S. communities,” King wrote.
King’s spokesperson noted that he also supports legislation that permits individuals with TPS from El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras to adjust their immigration status to legal permanent resident.
King may be reading the tea leaves about what revoking TPS could mean for his party’s political future.
Nassau County Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Jacobs said that ending TPS will help his party in the 2018 elections.
“I think what this does is it helps solidify with the Latino communities at large … that the Trump administration and Republicans in general do not have their best interest in mind,” Jacobs said. “This will help not only galvanize the community, but motivate them to come out and vote, which is certainly necessary if you're going to make changes moving forward.”
Whether or not that is enough to unseat King or Zeldin this fall, it will create problems for the New York GOP in the long-term. For the foreseeable future, the Latino population will continue to rise on Long Island, where whites may no longer be the majority by 2050 or even earlier. “The largest group, almost certainly, barring some quirk of geopolitics and economics, will be Latino,” Levy said about Long Island’s rising minority population. “And the largest Latino group will be Salvadoran, and you can bet they will not forget.”