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DHS ends protections for thousands of Central Americans

Posted at 7:24 AM, Nov 07, 2017

The Trump administration will end the protected immigration status of thousands of Central Americans who have been living in the US nearly two decades, urging Congress to act if it wants to spare those individuals from being uprooted.

Department of Homeland Security acting Secretary Elaine Duke has decided to terminate Temporary Protected Status for Nicaragua with a 12-month delay, the department announced Monday night. DHS also said Duke has not been able to reach a decision on Honduras despite different agencies' input, triggering an automatic six-month extension. At the end of that six-month window, the homeland security secretary will make a decision to terminate or further extend the status.

The Trump administration has signaled a desire to wind down the protections of Temporary Protected Status, which is an immigration status allowed by law for certain countries experiencing dire conditions, such as a natural disaster, epidemic or war. TPS protects individuals from deportation and authorizes them to work in the US. Without TPS, those individuals revert to whatever status they had previously -- which could leave large numbers as undocumented immigrants.

In encouraging Congress to act if it wants to extend those protections permanently, the Trump administration echoed its move in ending the popular Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children and which President Donald Trump decided to sunset this fall.

Both decisions were due by Monday, as the status was set to expire January 5. There is a 60-days-in-advance requirement by law to make a determination on extending or terminating Temporary Protected Status.

The roughly 5,300 individuals from Nicaragua affected by this decision have lived in the US roughly 20 years: To qualify for TPS, Nicaraguans must have been living in the US continuously since January 5, 1999, after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country.

DHS officials told reporters that Duke did not yet have enough information to make a decision on the 86,000 individuals covered under the Honduran protections, which by law triggers a six-month extension. Hondurans also have to have been living in the US continuously since January 5, 1999 to qualify, also due to Hurricane Mitch.

The move was being closely watched and heavily lobbied on both sides.

Though the administration says it is evaluating each country on its own, it has been more aggressive than previous administrations in evaluating only whether conditions have improved from what triggered the initial designation, regardless of dire conditions continuing due to other causes. That has the support of conservatives like Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, who wrote DHS last week urging them to not perpetually renew TPS.

In the next few months, the status of hundreds of thousands of TPS recipients will be up for decision. The Trump administration has already terminated the status for Sudan, extended protections for South Sudan, and given itself an extra six months to decide on protections for roughly 58,000 Haitians. That will be the next decision due, at the end of the month. When former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly extended Haitian TPS another six months over the summer, he encouraged recipients to either apply for status under some other means or prepare to depart the US.

In extending Nicaraguan protections for a final 12 months, DHS officials on a call with reporters urged those recipients to "seek an alternative lawful immigration status in the United States, if eligible, or, if necessary, arrange for their departure."

Coming up early next year is also a decision for El Salvador, with roughly 260,000 people covered from that country, who have lived in the US more than 15 years.

One official also called on Congress to act if they want individuals to remain permanently. Democrats have heavily lobbied DHS to preserve the protections, as have advocacy groups and business groups like the US Chamber of Commerce.

"Only Congress can legislate a permanent solution and provide those in an otherwise perpetually temporary status with a certain future," the official said.

Democrats were quick to call out the administration's move. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus called on Congress to act following the administration's "reckless" action.

"The Trump administration's irresponsible decision to end TPS for Nicaraguans will tear apart families and upend the lives of these hard-working individuals," CHC Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. "These immigrants have lived in the United States for nearly 20 years and have raised US citizen children, contributed to our economy and enriched our communities. Deporting families who are contributing to the economic and social fabric of our nation isn't leadership; it's a reckless and callous abuse of power."