What’s Wrong with Temporary Protected Status and How to Fix It: Exploring a Complementary Protection Regime

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What’s Wrong with Temporary Protected Status and How to Fix It


Temporary Protected Status (TPS) became part of the US protection regime in 1990 to expand protection beyond what had been available under the US Refugee Act of 1980, which had limited asylum to those who met the refugee definition from the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention. The TPS statute authorized the attorney general to designate foreign countries for TPS based on armed conflict, environmental disasters, and other extraordinary and temporary conditions that prevent designated nationals from returning in safety. While providing blanket protection that very likely has saved lives, TPS has nonetheless proven to be a blunt instrument that has frustrated advocates on both sides of the larger immigration debate.

This article evaluates the purpose and effectiveness of the TPS statute and identifies inadequacies in the TPS regime and related protection gaps in the US asylum system. It argues that TPS has not proven to be an effective mechanism for the United States to protect foreigners from generalized conditions of danger in their home countries. It calls for changing the US protection regime to make it more responsive to the risks many asylum seekers actually face by creating a broader “complementary protection” standard and a more effective procedure for assessing individual protection claims, while reserving “temporary protection” for rare situations of mass influx that overwhelm the government’s capacity to process individual asylum claims.

The article looks at alternative models for complementary protection from other jurisdictions, and shows how the US asylum and TPS system (in contrast to most other jurisdictions) fails to provide a mechanism for protecting arriving asylum seekers who do not qualify as refugees but who nevertheless would be at real risk of serious harm based on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment or because of situations of violence or other exceptional circumstances, including natural or human-made disasters or other serious events that disturb public order, that would threaten their lives or personal security.

The article proposes that the United States adopt an individualized complementary protection standard for arriving asylum seekers who are not able to meet the 1951 Refugee Convention standard but who would face a serious threat to life or physical integrity if returned because of a real risk of (1) cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (2) violence; or (3) exceptional situations, for which there is no adequate domestic remedy.


Author Names

Bill Frelick

Journal Journal on Migration and Human Security
Date of Publication February 26, 2020
DOI 10.1177/2331502419901266
Volume 8
Issue Number 1