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Protected immigrants at risk of losing U.S. work permits

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington on Oct. 13. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mainly from Central America, are at risk of losing their work permits after negotiations with the Biden administration to extend them broke down this week, advocates said Wednesday.

More than 300,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Nepal are seeking in federal court to extend their “temporary protected status,” or TPS, which most have held for decades. Immigrants’ lawyers and the Biden administration had been negotiating over the families’ status since June 2021, but talks collapsed Tuesday and lawyers said they are returning to court.

“Mediation efforts have been exhausted,” court mediator Jonathan Westen notified the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

The move reactivates a years-long court battle for the longtime immigrants to stay in the United States and intensifies pressure on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to decide whether to renew their protections.

Advocates say Mayorkas could solve their problem by issuing a fresh designation that it is too dangerous to return immigrants to those countries.

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Luis Miranda said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation. But he said the immigrants affected by the lawsuit "will continue to be protected over the coming months.”

The Justice Department, which represents the government in court, declined to comment, spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in an email.

Federal law allows the government to grant TPS to immigrants if their countries are engulfed in wars, natural disasters or other dangerous conditions. The Trump administration attempted to terminate the protections for Salvadorans and other immigrant groups, saying the designation had dragged on after the disasters had passed.

Federal judge, citing Trump racial bias, says administration can’t strip legal status from 300,000 Haitians, Salvadorans and others — for now

Immigrant families sued to block the Trump administration, arguing in part that its officials were motivated by racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in violation of the Constitution.

A federal judge sided with the immigrants in 2018 and paused the terminations, but was later overruled by 2-1 panel of the 9th Circuit. Advocates for immigrants have asked the full 9th Circuit to review the panel’s decision.

More than 240,000 immigrants from El Salvador, 76,700 from Honduras, 14,500 from Nepal and 4,250 from Nicaragua are at risk of losing their status, according to a 2021 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services report filed to Congress.

President Biden had pledged to protect these and other immigrants during his campaign, saying Donald Trump’s “politically motivated decisions" would be disastrous for immigrants who had lived in the United States for years.

The breakdown in negotiations stunned lawyers for the immigrants and their U.S.-born children.

‘We will lose practically everything’: Salvadorans devastated by TPS decision

“Those families have seen politicians use them as pawns for far too long,” Ahilan Arulanantham, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said, adding that he could not divulge the confidential details of the negotiations. “And it is shocking to me that the Biden administration was unable to prevent that pattern from continuing.”

Immigrants typically receive temporary protected status for a year or 18 months and live in periodic fear that the status will not be renewed. But for years officials have renewed those protections. Salvadorans received their current status in 2001 after devastating earthquakes. Hondurans and Nicaraguans were protected because of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Nepalis received protection following an earthquake in 2015.

Anyone from those countries who arrived in the United States after the designation is ineligible to apply.

Immigrants say they are fully integrated into American society, with driver’s licenses and retirement plans. Many own homes, and their children are U.S. citizens. But their temporary status does not offer a path to citizenship, and efforts to pass such a bill in Congress have stalled.

While advocates for immigrants say they hope the entire 9th Circuit will review the three-judge panel’s decision, they say they have also negotiated an orderly wind-down of the protections if they lose.

If the 9th Circuit does not rule before Nov. 30, then an automatic nine-month extension of the work permits would kick in as part of an early agreement for managing the program while the litigation is pending. Lawyers said the court could reduce that extension.

If the 9th Circuit declines to review the panel’s decision before then, lawyers said, the case will return to the lower court. Then Salvadorans would lose their work permits in one year, and people from the other countries in four months, said Emi MacLean, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Doris Landaverde, 43, a mother of three U.S. citizens in Massachusetts who works as a custodian at Harvard University, said she arrived in the United States in 2000 from El Salvador and that the dispute could divide her family. Her husband is from Morocco.

“We had put our hopes in the negotiations,” she said. “This has devastated me and the entire community. ... It means we have to pack our bags and go.”