The Trump administration said it needs more time to determine the fate of some 57,000 Hondurans living in the United States with provisional residency status, but it will terminate the permits of a smaller group of immigrants from Nicaragua, giving them 14 months to leave the country.
Monday night’s announcement by senior administration officials affects roughly the 57,000 Hondurans and 2,500 Nicaraguans who have been living in the United States for nearly 20 years with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a form of legal residency that shielded them from deportation after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998.
The decision was likely to displease immigration hard-liners who have urged the administration to end the TPS program on the grounds that it was never intended to bestow long-term residency to those who may have entered the country illegally.
But DHS Acting Secretary Elaine Duke appeared to deliberate on the decision right up to Monday night’s deadline, and the six-month extension for Hondurans punts the decision to Duke’s successor. President Trump has nominated Kirstjen Nielsen, the deputy White House chief of staff, to be the next secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and she will face confirmation hearings Wednesday.
Monday’s decision was anxiously awaited by some 200,000 Salvadorans and 50,000 Haitians whose TPS status is due to expire early next year. But administration officials did not include those countries in their announcement.
“Based on the lack of definitive information regarding conditions on the ground compared to pre-Hurricane Mitch, the Acting Secretary has not made a determination at this time, thereby automatically extending the current TPS designation for Honduras for six months — through July 5, 2018,” DHS officials said in a statement.
But the statement left open the possibility of ending the protections for Hondurans in six months, adding, “it is possible that the TPS designation for Honduras will be terminated at the end of the six-month automatic extension with an appropriate delay.”
Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter to Duke essentially giving DHS a green light to lift protections for Central Americans and Haitians, telling them that conditions in those countries no longer warranted an exempted from deportation.
[Tillerson: Protected status no longer needed for Central Americans, Haitians]
But administration officials said Duke was only ready to do so in the case of Nicaragua, a country whose leftist government is a frequent critic of the United States. Officials noted that the government of President Daniel Ortega did not formally request a TPS extension, whereas officials from Honduras and El Salvador have waged a furious lobbying campaign to renew it.
TPS was created by Congress in 1990 to avoid sending foreign nationals to countries that are too damaged or unstable to receive them, because of natural disasters, armed conflict or health epidemics.
Trump officials say previous administrations have disregarded the “temporary” intent of the program, and TPS was never meant to allow immigrants to remain in the United States indefinitely. The administration has canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and sharply cut the number of refugees eligible for resettlement in the United States, amid other efforts to limit immigration.
Hegly Barahona, 50, who cleans homes and buses restaurant tables in the Washington suburbs, arrived from Honduras in 1996, and if sent back there, she said she would have no way to financially support her son. He plays lacrosse at Ohio Valley University in West Virginia, she said.
“He’s a good boy,” said Barahona. “How would I be able to help him from Honduras? There’s no work there.”
Barahona said she would probably remain in the United States illegally, “to stay as long as possible.”
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DHS ended TPS for several African nations earlier this year, including Sudan and Sierra Leone, but Central Americans and Haitians comprise the vast majority of TPS recipients, and they are the longest tenured.
Carmen Paz, 50, has lived in the United States since 1998, and said the TPS program allowed her to trade a life in the shadows for one with full-time, formal employment and a driver’s license.
Paz cleans hotel rooms at a Sheraton in Rockville, Md. She said she began suffering headaches and insomnia after her health insurance provider declined to renew her policy beyond January, pointing out that her legal residency will soon expire.
“I would lose my driver’s license, my health insurance, my job, everything,” she said.
Trump administration officials acknowledge that TPS beneficiaries come from countries afflicted with poverty, corruption and crime. But they say those problems should be addressed in other ways, and that returning migrants can help foster development in their home countries.
In May, then-DHS Secretary John F. Kelly renewed TPS for Haitians, but only for six months, far short of the 18-month extensions repeatedly granted by the Obama administration. The Haitians had been allowed to stay in the United States after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the capital Port-au-Prince and killed 200,000.
Kelly, now White House chief of staff, called the six-month extension “limited,” saying its purpose was to “allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States.”
If recipients lose their protections, many are expected to defy orders to leave, and DHS has their addresses, phone numbers and other information on file. But a senior administration official said Monday that Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) would not automatically forward their personal information to immigration enforcement agents, and they would not be a priority for arrest and deportation.
The families of TPS recipients include nearly 275,000 U.S.-born children, according to a study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.
Paz said she spoke to immigration attorneys over the years to find out if she could apply for permanent residency — a green card.
But because she had entered the country illegally, they told her she would face a difficult path, and advised her she would be better off with TPS.