On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter to acting DHS secretary Elaine Duke to inform her that conditions in Central America and Haiti that had been used to justify the protection no longer necessitate a reprieve for the migrants, some of whom have been allowed to live and work in the United States for 20 years under a program known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
Tillerson's assessment, required by law, has not been made public, but its recommendations were confirmed by several administration officials familiar with its contents. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
DHS has until Monday to announce its plans for roughly 57,000 Hondurans and 2,500 Nicaraguans whose TPS protections will expire in early January. Although most arrived here illegally, they were exempted from deportation after Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in 1998. Their TPS protections have been renewed routinely since then, in some cases following additional natural disasters and resulting insecurity.
Congress established TPS in 1990 to protect foreign nationals from being returned to their countries amid instability and precarious conditions caused by natural disasters or armed conflict.
Trump administration officials have repeatedly noted that the program was meant to be temporary — not a way for people to become long-term residents of the United States. Officials said that long-ago disasters should not be used to extend provisional immigration status when the initial justification for it no longer exists.
Tillerson's assessment is consistent with broader administration efforts to reduce immigration to the United States and comply with legal restrictions that it maintains have been loosely enforced in the past.
"It is fair to say that this administration is interpreting the law, exactly as it is, which the previous one did not," an administration official said.
The official acknowledged that the countries in question continue to suffer from problems of poverty, corruption and violence that, in many cases, have spurred illegal migration. But, the official said, those conditions should be addressed in other ways.
"The solution is going to require working with Congress and these countries," the official said. "We are equally committed to finding that. There is no lack of empathy here."
But "with this particular law," the official said, "it is very clear to this administration what needs to be done."
Administration officials have also said that the return of tens of thousands of migrants could benefit the Central American nations and Haiti, because their citizens will return with job skills, democratic values and personal savings acquired from living long term in the United States.
Many of the immigrants have homes, businesses and U.S.-born children, but if the protections expire, they could be subject to arrest and deportation. "We understand this is a very difficult decision," the administration official said.
DHS officials declined to say Friday what the agency planned to do, or when an announcement would be made.
"The acting secretary has made no decision on TPS," said Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for the agency.
Tillerson's letter does not amount to a recommendation. But DHS is required to seek the agency's input, and officials said the State Department's position carries significant weight.
The largest group of TPS recipients — about 200,000 — are from El Salvador, and DHS has until early January to announce its plans for them. At least 30,000 of them live in the Washington area, according to immigrant advocacy groups.
When the Obama administration last extended TPS for the Salvadorans, in July 2016, it said that they were eligible because conditions justifying it continued to be met.
"There continues to be a substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions in El Salvador resulting from a series of earthquakes in 2001," Homeland Security officials said at the time, "and El Salvador remains unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return of its nationals."
DHS must also decide what to do with about 50,000 Haitian TPS recipients by Thanksgiving Day. The Haitians, who are concentrated in South Florida, received TPS after a 2010 earthquake that killed 200,000.
Advocates say removing TPS would be a cruel blow to long-standing, law-abiding immigrants, forcing them to decide between remaining in the country illegally or leaving their homes and families. According to a recent study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, TPS recipients have nearly 275,000 U.S.-born children.
If recipients lose their protections but defy orders to leave, it would not be difficult for immigration enforcement agents to find them. The provisional nature of their status requires them to maintain current records with DHS; the agency has their addresses, phone numbers and other personal information.
"Terminating TPS at this time would be inhumane and untenable," a group of Catholic charity leaders wrote to Duke in a recent letter, arguing that it would "needlessly add large numbers of Hondurans and Salvadorans to the undocumented population in the U.S., lead to family separation, and unnecessarily cause the Department of Homeland Security to expend resources on individuals who are already registered with our government and whose safe return is forestalled by dire humanitarian circumstances."
If DHS ends the TPS protections, it is expected to grant recipients a grace period of at least six months or more to give them time to prepare for departure.
In May, then-DHS Secretary John F. Kelly extended TPS for Haitians for six months, far less than the 18-month waivers granted by the Obama administration.
Kelly, in a statement at the time, called the six-month window a "limited" extension whose purpose was to "allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States."
Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's poorest country and remains in the grips of a cholera epidemic triggered by U.N. troops who were sent after the earthquake.
Advocates of reduced immigration say the Haiti decision will be a key test of the administration's willingness to follow through on its by-the-books rhetoric.
Immigration experts believe many of the Haitians could attempt to seek refuge in Canada, particularly French-speaking Quebec, to avoid arrest and deportation.