DHS ends protected immigration status for thousands of Nicaraguans, extends for Hondurans

"We do hope and encourage Congress to look at this and find a solution."

Organizers call on the Trump administration to protect the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program. (CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee)
Organizers call on the Trump administration to protect the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program. (CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee)

On Monday, the Trump administration announced that the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program for Nicaraguan immigrants will end in January 2019 — meaning the approximately 2,500 Nicaraguans legally in the United States will have 14 months to find another way to remain in the country or go back to Nicaragua. The White House also delayed a decision on TPS for Honduran immigrants, in a move that could seriously impact the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Elaine Duke will terminate the TPS designation for Nicaragua “with a delayed effective date of 12 months to allow for an orderly transition before the designation terminates on January 5, 2019,” according to a press release sent on Monday night. The DHS will automatically extend the TPS designation for Hondurans for six months from the current January 5, 2018 expiration date to July 5, 2018, at which point the organization will again determine whether to grant another extension. 

Since the 1990s, the DHS has granted TPS designation to individuals from 10 countries fleeing violence, natural disasters, or conditions that prevent them from being able to go back to their home countries. The provisional immigration program has granted work authorization to recipients, allowing them to stay in the United States legally for decades. The program does not grant permanent legal status. Both Honduras and Nicaragua received initial TPS designations in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch devastated the two countries.

The DHS’ most recent decision affects more than 57,000 Hondurans and 2,500 Nicaraguans with TPS protections that expire early next January, according to data compiled by the Center for Migration Studies. In data shared with ThinkProgress, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency puts those numbers closer to 86,163 recipients for Honduras and 5,349 recipients for Nicaragua as of the end of calendar year 2016. Those higher figures likely stem from people who initially applied for TPS, but may not have necessarily maintained their TPS designation.

The Trump administration is expected to make similar announcements for 50,000 Haitian TPS recipients by November 23, 2017 and 195,000 Salvadoran TPS recipients by January 8, 2018. Haiti received its initial TPS designation in 2010 after an earthquake left 1.5 million people homeless and injured 300,000 people. El Salvador became the first country to receive TPS designation in 1990 in the aftermath of the country’s civil war.

After the termination of the TPS designation, individuals will revert back to whatever legal status they had before they received TPS, senior administration officials said on a background call Monday night. That means many people would become undocumented if they cannot quickly change their statuses and remain in the country.

“The practical application would be that would be the date they would have to leave [the country] or by some other means regulate their status,” one senior administration official said on the call.

The press statement made clear that DHS terminated the TPS designation for Nicaragua because conditions had sufficiently recovered after Hurricane Mitch for the country to receive people who fled. But the DHS gave a less clear timeline for Honduras because it lacked “definitive information regarding conditions on the ground compared to pre-Hurricane Mitch.”

The administration’s announcement comes now in November because TPS designations by law must be announced 60 days before the program’s expiration date. Nicaraguans’ and Hondurans’ work authorization cards were set to expire on January 5, 2018.

Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote a letter  to Duke stating he would like to end the provisional immigration program, citing improved conditions in Central America and Haiti.

Tillerson’s recommendations, which were not made public according to the Washington Post, could adversely impact not just TPS recipients, but their family members. Roughly 250,000 U.S. citizens are the offspring of TPS beneficiaries, so the announcement would likely force many families to make the difficult decision of having to take their children with them. Already, 50,000 Haitian TPS recipients, who expect administrative decisions by Thanksgiving, are preparing for the worst.

During the background call with reporters, senior administration officials emphasized that the USCIS agency — the organization overseeing TPS designation — would not “proactively share information with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regarding the expiration of TPS.” They also made clear that the DHS would not specifically target TPS holders who become undocumented once their status expires, but that they would still “prioritize criminal aliens.”

Given that many of the TPS recipients have been in this country for decades, administration officials said the White House would look to Congress to offer a permanent solution for TPS holders.

“The administration understands there are a number of individuals who have been in TPS status, potentially for 20 years, and given the lengthy period of the status here, [knows] that congressmen want to find a solution to find a more permanent status versus this 18-month to 18-month temporary fix,” the senior administration official said. “That is up to Congress, but the administration would support Congress’ efforts to find such a solution.”

“We do hope and encourage Congress to look at this and find a solution,” the official added.

As ThinkProgress previously reported, some Haitian parents are weighing the costs of leaving their children here in the United States if they have to return.

“I’m not here to be a delinquent, to be a problem to this country,” Florida resident and TPS holder Yolnick Jeune previously told ThinkProgress, explaining that after she arrived in the United States, she learned English so that she would assimilate as quickly as possible. “I’m here to work and contribute to this economy.”

Many advocates and lawmakers criticized the decision ahead of an official White House announcement.

“While it is clear that TPS protection was meant to provide refuge for people of color in Honduras, Nicaragua and Haiti, their homelands have yet to reach a place of safety or economic prosperity which would make their return feasible,” Eddie Carmona, director of PICO National Network’s LA RED immigrant justice campaign, said in a statement. “This is yet another attempt by the Trump administration to dehumanize immigrants and communities of color, particularly when they are in their greatest need. To demand that more than 300,000 individuals return to their former countries when those countries are profoundly unsafe and underdeveloped economically is inhumane.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras James (Jim) D. Nealon also urged the Trump administration to extend TPS, saying, “it makes no sense to send [citizens of Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador] back to their country of origin.”

Congressional members, including Republican lawmakers, also called on the Trump administration to continue TPS.

Other presidential administrations have both ended and renewed TPS without much controversy, as Daily Kos’ Gabe Ortiz pointed out. But the fate of TPS is more tenuous under President Donald Trump whose executive orders on immigration aim to limit legal immigration and deport undocumented immigrants. Earlier this year, the Trump administration ended TPS for Sudanese recipients, who were told to arrange their departure or find another way to legally stay in the United States once their status expires in November 2018.