Incoming DHS Secretary Faces High-Pressure Decision On 300,000 Aliens With Temporary Status

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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If Department of Homeland Security secretary nominee Kirstjen Nielsen is confirmed as expected on Wednesday, one of her first major decisions will be what to do about 300,000 foreign nationals living in the U.S. with a form of temporary immigration status.

Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke on Monday terminated the so-called temporary protected status (TPS) designation for about 2,500 Nicaraguan nationals, giving them 14 months to prepare to leave the U.S. or adjust their immigration status if they are eligible. But DHS officials declined to make a determination on a much larger group of 57,000 similarly situated Hondurans, instead granting them a six-month extension while the agency gathers more information.

That puts the fate of the Honduran nationals — as well as another 50,000 Haitians and 200,000 El Salvadorans — in the hands of the next DHS secretary. Assuming the Republican-controlled Senate approves Nielsen’s nomination, she will have until Thanksgiving Day to make a decision on TPS for Haiti and until early January to do the same for El Salvador.

Created by Congress in 1990, TPS defers deportation for certain aliens already in the U.S. — many of them illegally — 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.

Despite the “temporary” designation, TPS has become something of a permanent immigration benefit for many Nicaraguans, Hondurans and El Salvadorans living in the U.S. without any other legal status. The U.S. gave TPS to Nicaragua and Honduras in 1999 following Hurricane Mitch and to El Salvador in 2001 after a series of destructive earthquakes. Many El Salvadorans are also covered under a 1991 TPS designation the was granted during that country’s civil war. (RELATED: This Is How ‘Temporary’ Protected Status Became Permanent For 300,000 People)

 The longstanding TPS designations have allowed hundreds of thousands of Central American nationals to avoid deportation for decades, putting even more political pressure on the Trump administration to extend TPS for people who now have familial and business roots in the U.S. Following Duke’s announcement, Democratic lawmakers attacked the Trump administration for its supposed indifference to immigrant families.

“The Trump Administration’s irresponsible decision to end TPS for Nicaraguans will tear apart families and upend the lives of these hard-working individuals,” Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a statement. “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.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took the same tack, accusing the administration of “senseless prejudice” and denouncing the TPS decision as a “cowardly assault on thousands of families in communities across the nation,” reports the Washington Post.

TPS and other contentious immigration policy issues are likely to feature prominently in Nielsen’s confirmation hearing Wednesday. Formerly John Kelly’s top aide during his stint as DHS Secretary, Nielsen was working at the agency during the roll out of the administration’s travel ban and border security crackdown.

Because of her experience with those policies, Nielsen’s nomination was received favorably by most conservative immigration reformers. Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said he was optimistic that Nielsen was “ready to address the mounting national security threats the nation faces by unchecked immigration.”

On the other hand, some immigration hawks have expressed concern about Nielsen’s endorsements from amnesty-friendly officials who worked with her in the Homeland Security Council of the George W. Bush administration.

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