The Trump administration is plunging 57,000 Honduran immigrants into limbo

For nearly 20 years, since a 1998 hurricane, the US government has allowed tens of thousands of Honduran immigrants to stay and work in the US rather than forcing them to return to Honduras.

The Trump administration hasn’t ended that reprieve just yet. But it’s hinting, strongly, that it’s going to try.

On Monday, President Trump’s Department of Homeland Security announced that it was unable to come to a decision about whether to extend Temporary Protected Status (an immigration program that allows people from a certain country living in the US to remain and work here indefinitely while their home countries recover from disaster) for 57,000 Hondurans. DHS is terminating the protections for 2,500 Nicaraguans as of January 2019.

The Hondurans get six more months of protection (assuming they reregister with US Citizenship and Immigration Services) while the Trump administration makes up its mind. But a senior administration official warned Monday that “given the information available to” Acting Secretary Elaine Duke, “it is possible that the TPS designation for Honduras may be terminated with an appropriate delay at the end of the 6-month period.”

Indeed, the State Department recommended Friday that it push both Honduras and Nicaragua out of the program — along with El Salvador and Haiti.

The four countries together account for about 300,000 people living legally in the US — many of them for decades. The administration will make decisions about their fates over the next few months. And it’s expected to tell all of these people that they’re no longer welcome.

The Trump administration has already made it clear that it wants to send a message that TPS will not protect immigrants indefinitely, and that it wants beneficiaries to start thinking about leaving the United States.

But because so many have been in the US for so long — 63 percent of Hondurans have been in the US 20 years or more — the real likely outcome is that these TPS holders will stay in the US without legal authorization. By doing so, they’d join the 700,000 young unauthorized immigrants who are facing the expiration of their protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Over its first year in office, the Trump administration has made it clear that it wants to completely overhaul the basis on which the US grants legal status to immigrants. It envisions a “merit-based” immigration system in which individual immigrants are selected based on their high level of education and relevant professional skills — and the government has no obligation to let immigrants come to or stay in the US just because their homes and families are already here.

There are a lot of current US immigration policies that run afoul of the Trump administration’s ideas of merit, but TPS might be the biggest affront to their vision. Not only does it extend legal protections to people based almost entirely on what’s happened in their home countries, rather than what they can contribute as individuals, but it applies to people who were already living in the US when TPS was granted — instead of allowing the US to select immigrants in advance.

In context, the message the Trump administration is sending immigrants through sunsetting the TPS program is the same message it’s sending all other immigrants: Don’t get too comfortable.

For the past 27 years, Temporary Protected Status has been used as a form of humanitarian relief

The Temporary Protected Status program was created to mend a gap in President Ronald Reagan’s immigration policy.

When Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 into law, granting legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, there was one group that was ineligible for protection: those who entered the country without authorization in 1982 or later. While the majority of people in this group were immediately subject to deportation, nationals of certain countries were granted “Extended Voluntary Departure” (EVD) status, an administrative reprieve that allowed the US attorney general to exclude certain foreign nationals from the list of those set to be deported immediately.

The EVD program was controversial: There was little criteria on what made a country eligible for it, and critics of the program charged that designations were based on politically motivated factors that failed to protect nationals of countries with volatile on-the-ground conditions. That belief was solidified when Reagan rejected the Salvadoran government’s request that EVD be extended to more than 400,000 Salvadoran refugees who had entered the US to escape a violent civil war, a decision Reagan justified by saying that Salvadorans were already unlikely to leave the country.

The TPS program, created through the Immigration Act of 1990, was supposed to resolve this issue by standardizing the process for shielding nationals of certain countries from deportation. Serving as a form of humanitarian relief, TPS is offered to nationals of countries struggling with the aftermath of war, natural disasters, or other humanitarian crises where conditions on the ground make it difficult for people to return to safely. Ten countries — El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — are currently in the program, which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security and is granted in six- to 18-month intervals that can be renewed as long as DHS deems a designation necessary.

To enter the program, nationals of a designated country must clear a number of conditions: They must maintain a relatively clean criminal record and pass a background check, they must pay a $495 processing fee when they first apply for the program and every time their status is renewed, and they must reside in the United States at the time of their country’s designation. This usually means that TPS beneficiaries are undocumented immigrants who were already in the US, those who overstayed a visa, or those who hold some other form of temporary immigration status.

TPS beneficiaries are granted authorization to work in the US (and in some cases the ability to travel internationally) and a reprieve from deportation. But outside of that, TPS doesn’t grant many other benefits; beneficiaries do not have legal permanent resident status, and while a small number of beneficiaries may be eligible for green cards through the sponsorship of a US citizen family member, the program is not intended to provide a path to citizenship. As Cecilia Menjívar, co-director of the Center for Migration Research at the at the University of Kansas, noted in a report on Central American TPS holders earlier this year, TPS beneficiaries are in a precarious position; while they are granted some of the benefits of residing in the US, their lack of full legal status prevents them from truly accessing everything.

TPS is the opposite of everything the Trump administration stands for on immigration — and it’s picking a fight over it

Unfortunately for the Hondurans and other TPS holders, the Trump administration no longer views humanitarian relief as a primary goal of the US immigration system.

It doesn’t help that most of the TPS holders are exactly the opposite of the immigrants that the Trump administration imagines a “merit-based” system would attract. The median household income for Hondurans with TPS, for example, was $40,000, and only 38 percent of them had high school diplomas, according to January estimates from the Center for Migration Studies.

In addition to their longtime status in the US, an estimated 53,000 US-born kids have at least one parent who benefits from Honduras’s TPS designation. The fact that these people have now largely settled here is one of the chief arguments for keeping TPS protections — indeed, that’s the logic that’s led the government to renew TPS for Honduras 10 times already.

But to the Trump administration, this is evidence that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the TPS program — because a program called “temporary” shouldn’t be leading people to settle permanently in the US. So the administration has made it abundantly clear that that’s going to change — and that it’s going to wind down TPS protections whenever possible.

It started with Haiti. In May, the administration announced that it would extend Haitian TPS protections for another six months — but no further.

“The Department of Homeland Security urges Haitian TPS recipients who do not have another immigration status,” per the DHS memo formally granting the extension, “to use the time before Jan. 22, 2018 to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States — including proactively seeking travel documentation — or to apply for other immigration benefits for which they may be eligible.”

Haitians’ six-month TPS extension expires in January — giving the administration until November 23 to announce what will happen to the 50,000 Haitian TPS holders after that. But the shot across the bow in May raised concerns that Hondurans and Salvadorans, the other two groups that account for the overwhelming majority of TPS beneficiaries, might not even get the six-month wrap-up period, and that the government would strip 300,000 immigrants of protections over the first 10 weeks of 2018.

“The message,” then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said at a Miami press conference shortly after the Haiti announcement, “is: ‘TPS is temporary.’”

Other groups with TPS heard that message loud and clear — especially when the Trump administration announced in September that it was kicking about 1,000 Sudanese beneficiaries out of TPS as of November 2018. Immigrant rights organizations started mobilizing in support of TPS. The Congressional Black Caucus wrote a letter in support of TPS for Haiti; the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote letters in support of keeping TPS for Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.

The government of Honduras lobbied the Trump administration over the summer to maintain TPS protections; the government of Haiti, which had already asked for a longer extension in May than it got, redoubled its efforts to keep TPS for its citizens from going away.

Even the Chamber of Commerce — which has been largely silent on immigration issues since the last failure of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress — wrote to the White House in support of TPS.

The mobilization seemed rapid, but it made sense. TPS beneficiaries have deep roots in the US. For the Trump administration, that’s a concern. For many other institutions in American society, from businesses to church groups, it’s an asset.

Revoking TPS visas doesn’t mean they’ll be deported, but they probably won’t leave on their own

The Trump administration doesn’t have the resources to deport 300,000 people the minute they lose their TPS protections. Arrests of immigrants are up, but deportations are down — and even the rise in arrests is dwarfed by the rise in the number of people the Trump administration considers deportable, compared to Obama-era policies.

Threats about an end to TPS are really an attempt to encourage “self-deportation” — to get TPS holders to stop expecting they’ll be allowed to stay in the US forever and start working on a plan to return home.

It’s a strategy that might make sense if TPS holders were determined to stay in the US as long as it was legal for them to do so but to leave the minute they lost legal protections. But neither of those appears to be the case.

When Hondurans first qualified for TPS in 1999, more than 100,000 of them were protected, according to an estimate from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. That means that tens of thousands have left on their own (or adjusted to a more permanent legal status) even while they could have remained in TPS limbo indefinitely.

And as for the idea that the threat of losing TPS will inspire immigrants to leave, just look at Haitians — who’ve already been facing that prospect for months.

Some Haitians “prepared for and arranged” their travel — to Canada, where they’re seeking asylum. But others, clinging to the fact that the Trump administration hasn’t officially declared that TPS will end, are resistant to make plans to leave the country that many of them have lived in for most of their lives. “I have nothing to go back to,” Uber driver and would-be college student Jean Jubens Jeanty told the New York Times in July. “Why not keep me here?”

This isn’t optimism. It’s simply not having alternatives. “It’s very unsettling,” a Queens College senior told the Times, “to know that you’re here and you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, or what is going to happen in the next couple of months.”

Losing TPS wouldn’t create certainty — it would just open up a deeper anxiety, in which fear of being deportable is replaced with fear of actually getting deported.

By November 23, DHS will have to release its final decision on Haiti. In early March 2018, TPS for Salvadorans will run out unless it’s further extended, and thousands of DACA recipients per day will start losing protections. In May, the administration will have to come to a decision on Honduras.

All told, the Trump administration could ultimately be responsible for making over 900,000 more people vulnerable to deportation. It’s creating deportable immigrants much faster than it can actually deport them. And the gap between the possibility of deportation and its certainty creates lives full of fear.

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