January of this year, President Trump enacted a new policy that ended the Temporary Protected Status for 200,000 Salvadorans and 88,000 Hondurans that had been living in the United States for almost twenty years. Both countries originally received TPS following natural disasters at the start of the twenty-first century. Honduras was hit by a devastating hurricane in 1999 and El Salvador suffered from several major earthquakes in 2001. Under TPS, Salvadorans and Hondurans living in the United States could not be removed or detained by the Department of Homeland Security based on their immigration status. However, TPS is a temporary benefit that, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, does not lead to lawful resident status. The decision to terminate the benefits of TPS earlier this year was based on the belief the policy was being abused. Trump argued that both countries had sufficient time to recover from the natural disasters and that they should now be able to return home. However, this influx of people could drastically hurt both Central American economies by reducing remittances from Salvadorans and Hondurans living in the United States and increasing the unemployment rate in both countries.
Furthermore, both countries are currently battling a different crisis – unrelated to the previous environmental disasters – gang violence. Gang membership and participation is rampant, with the two main gangs in both countries being MS-13 and its main rival, Barrio 18. In El Salvador gang activity is so widespread that 500,000 of its 6.5 million citizens are involved in gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18. To better understand the pervasiveness of this crisis, in the United States there are 1.4 million active gang members which is less than 1% of the total population, while El Salvador’s gang membership makes up almost 8% of its population. Rather than working to provide aid to address the crisis of gang violence in Central America, Trump has instead chosen to limit immigration from the country and eliminate TPS for Salvadorans and Hondurans. The administration claims that gangs from these countries have been infiltrating the United States through immigration apparatuses, but the actual number of MS-13 and Barrio 18 members in the United States has remained relatively constant over the last two decades. The termination of these immigration policies actually puts more people at risk than it protects.
One group of people whose struggle against gang violence has been widely overlooked is the young women of El Salvador and Honduras. In these countries, women are seen as objects by members of the various gangs. Their only value comes from forced relationships with gang members or their familial ties to members of rival gangs. In both instances women face sexual assault or physical violence. Many relationships between young women and gang members are forced with women unable to deny the gang member’s advances out of fear of physical retaliation, while young women with family members involved in a gang are constantly at risk of rape, sexual assault, or femicide as a form of revenge. In fact, El Salvador currently has the highest rate of femicide in the world at 12 per 100,000 people and the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Latin America at 25% of women aged 15 to 19 years old. In Honduras, the most well-known case of femicide occurred in 2014 when that year’s Miss Honduras winner and her sister were murdered days before their planned trip to the Miss World competition in London. Additionally, the overall homicide rate is above 80 per 100,000 people in both El Salvador and Honduras, making them two of the most dangerous countries in the world. Through a combination of exaggerated machismo and gang power, a culture of fear has developed within these countries. It is highly likely that the reported statistics on sexual assaults and homicides are understated due to many victims’ fear of retribution and the gang member’s ability to act with impunity.
With the termination of Temporary Protected Status for the 200,000 Salvadorans and 88,000 Hondurans living in the United States, the affected women face the increased possibility of sexual assault and physical violence when they go back. Those returning from the United States are targeted by gangs because they are believed to be wealthier and are considered traitors to their country for leaving. They also have less family ties and connections within the country which makes them defenseless against many attacks. Women returning home will face these additional motivators for sexual assault and physical violence with no option to return to the United States, even through asylum seeking. In 2006, a Salvadoran woman who attempted to seek asylum from gang violence in the United States had her case rejected by the highest immigration court, the Board of Immigration Appeals. According to the court, her persecution was not based on her political opinion or her membership to a particular, visible group. This group, defined as “women in El Salvador between the ages of 12 and 25 who resisted gang recruitment,” was particular enough but not socially visible. While the Trump administration immigration policy has been ineffective in addressing the overall problem of gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras, it has also completely failed to address any of the distinct dangers faced by women in these countries. What’s more, by ending TPS, the administration is sending thousands more Central American women back to face new dangers that they were previously protected from in the United States.