Within the next two months, U.S. immigration officials will have to decide what should happen to hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals living in the U.S. under a program that shields them from deportation.
The Department of Homeland Security is set to decide Monday whether it will extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to 57,000 Nicaraguans and 2,500 Hondurans. It has until Thanksgiving day to make a similar determination about 50,000 Haitians and until Jan. 8 to do the same for nearly 200,000 El Salvadorans.
All told, more than 300,000 foreign nationals could lose their reprieve from deportation under TPS.
Created by Congress in 1990, TPS defers deportation for certain aliens already in the U.S. and allows them to apply for work permits. As its name suggests, TPS is ostensibly a short-term humanitarian benefit that lets foreign nationals stay while their home countries recover from catastrophes such as civil wars, natural disasters or epidemics.
In practice, TPS has become something of a semi-permanent immigration benefit, as both Democratic and Republican administrations repeatedly granted extensions for reasons that were not always related to the initial designation. This has led to the current situation, where many illegal immigrants from the designated countries have lived and worked in the U.S. for decades.
Honduras and Nicaragua
The two Central American countries were first designated for TPS in January 1999, after Hurricane Mitch slammed into the region, killing thousands and causing billions of dollars in damage. Nearly two decades later, the protections remain in place for any illegal immigrants from those countries who have had continuous residence in the U.S. since Dec. 30, 1998.
Since the original TPS designation, administrations of both parties have granted extensions because of subsequent natural disasters. In the last 18-month extension for Honduras — which expires Jan. 5 — the Obama administration cited “severe rains, landslides, and flooding” and an outbreak of mosquito-borne diseases including chikungunya and dengue fever. The extension for Nicaragua included many of the same causes, as well as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that hit between April 2014 and July 2015.
The Obama administration argued those environmental problems had degraded both countries’ civil infrastructure and health care systems to the point where their citizens could not safely return. Earlier this week, the Trump administration made a different assessment, finding that conditions on the ground in Honduras in Nicaragua do not justify another extension. (RELATED: State Department Says Haitians, Central Americans In US No Longer Need Protected Status)
El Salvadoran nationals originally received TPS directly from Congress in 1990 when the country was in the midst of a brutal civil war. Like its Central American neighbors, El Salvador received a subsequent TPS designation on the basis of a natural disaster — in this case from the Bush administration in 2001 after series of earthquakes.
The difference between TPS for El Salvador and the other Central American countries is one of scope: Some 200,000 El Salvadoran nationals are covered under the designation, according to the Congressional Research Service. That’s about 16 percent of the entire El Salvadoran population in the U.S.
When it extended TPS for El Salvador in 2016, the Obama administration cited a litany of “environmental challenges” the country has faced since the 2001 earthquakes. These include “heavy rains and flooding” and also a “prolonged regional drought” that was the country’s worst in 35 years.
El Salvador’s government has officially asked the Trump administration to extend the country’s TPS designation, which expires in March.
Haiti is the most recent TPS designee of the four countries whose status expires in the next two months. The Obama administration granted protected status to Haitian nationals in 2010 after a massive earthquake destroyed much of the already impoverished country, killing as many as 200,000 people.
Then-DHS Secretary John Kelly approved a six-month TPS extension for Haiti in May, the fifth such reprieve since the earthquake. At the time, immigration and humanitarian activists criticized Kelly for not granting a customary 18-month extension, arguing that his brief trip to Haiti did not give him a full appreciation of problems facing the country.
The Haitian government last month formally petitioned DHS to keep TPS protections in place. The government says it cannot safely handle the re-repatriation of its citizens due to damage and flooding caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, as well as widespread civil unrest. (RELATED: Seven Years After Earthquake, Haiti Asks Trump For Another Extension Of Temporary Protected Status)
Thousands of Haitian illegal immigrants have fled the U.S. for Canada in anticipation of losing TPS protections when the six-month extension expires in January.
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