The Bishop of El Paso is urging the Trump administration to extend a temporary residency program for Salvadoran migrants for the sake of keeping families together, as a deadline looms for the Department of Homeland Security to make a decision.

Temporary Protected Status, a temporary immigration permit program, is set to expire for El Salvador March 9, unless the Department of Homeland Security decides, by Jan. 8, to extend it.

“Will these families face separation and breakdown, so that their U.S.-citizen child can access the benefits of an American education? Or will families stay together and leave to their parents’ home countries, facing a decided lack of opportunity and, worse, extreme violence and possible exploitation?” Bishop Mark Seitz questioned in an opinion piece published Jan. 1 in The Hill.

“The end of TPS for El Salvador would force such a heartbreaking decision upon thousands of families,” the bishop stated.

 Seitz asked: “As I meet more mixed-status families here in Texas who have TPS-recipient parents, a question burns in my heart is what will happen to these children if their parents are ordered back to El Salvador? What will become of their futures?”

Temporary Protected Status originated in 1990 as a program for individuals and families whose home countries are experiencing natural disasters, armed conflicts, or exceptional situations in which they could seek temporary shelter in the United States and work legally within the country until the situation in their homeland is resolved.

Since its beginning, around 200,000 individuals from El Salvador have taken advantage of the TPS program. Among these individuals, there are an estimated 192,000 U.S.-citizen children whose parents are a part of the TPS program.

If the Department of Homeland Security moves to end the program, Seitz has concerns over the future of the mixed-citizen families and their children.

Seitz also underscored the number of benefits the United States has received from TPS holders, including economic contributions through the taxes they pay and through the industries they work in, including construction and home health care.

Last August, a group of Catholic bishops and researchers from the Migration and Refugee Services of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops headed an expedition to explore the living conditions in El Salvador and Honduras. Their report found “large-scale protection issues if TPS holders are forced to return to their home countries, particularly El Salvador.”

The report also noted that the end of TPS could “negatively impact regional security, and have negative economic and humanitarian consequences.”

After the delegation returned from its examination, the bishops proposed a number of policy recommendations for the United States to progress towards a better, long-term solution for the situation in Central America.

In addition, Seitz pointed to the number of families and individuals who have given first-hand accounts of their experience in El Salvador and Honduras.

“I have sat with youths who tearfully explained to me why they attempted to migrate north, forced out of their homes, extorted by gangs,” Seitz recalled.

“I have heard from young girls who faced sexual assault and domestic abuse; teen-aged boys have spoken with me about being afraid to go to school because of the fear of encountering gangs on the way and having to pay daily to enter and leave their neighborhood,” he continued.

Seitz is confident that if TPS is ended for El Salvador, hundreds of thousands of people will return to these volatile conditions, forcing families to wrestle with the decision to stay together or separate.

The Texas bishop also urged leaders to continue the TPS program for the sake of the children, noting that conditions in El Salvador particularly are not fit to return to.

“I steadfastly pray that our national leaders do no turn their backs on these children by closing the door to their parents,” Seitz urged.

“Ending TPS for El Salvador is akin to exactly that.”

TPS was extended for Honduras in November, but the status was not renewed for either Nicaragua or Haiti in the same month.