The Trump administration has argued that the Temporary Protected Status program was never meant to serve as a back door to long-term U.S. residency. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Late last summer, after the Trump administration announced its intent to terminate a form of provisional U.S. residency held by nearly 1,000 Sudanese immigrants, officials at the Pentagon and State Department sent urgent messages to the Department of Homeland Security. 

DHS officials had justified their decision to terminate the immigrants’ temporary protected status (TPS) on the grounds that security in Sudan had improved and that armed conflict was no longer ongoing. But neither assertion was true. 

“Insurgents conducted a significant military offensive as recently as this spring in Darfur,” Mandi Tuttle, an Africa policy adviser at the Defense Department, pointed out to top officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), the agency within DHS that administers the TPS program. Tuttle said its statements were neither “factually accurate” nor “credible.”

Experts at the State Department warned that “inaccuracies” in DHS’s characterization of the conflict there would give the Sudanese government a green light to shove refugees back into deadly conflict zones.

“We literally were forced to dispatch our Foreign Affairs Officers by taxi to the Embassies with virtually no notice,” Christopher Ashe, the top official at the State Department’s Office of International Migration, wrote to James McCament, who was acting director at CIS at the time.

The interagency emails, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and other plaintiffs through court filings, were provided to The Washington Post this week as lawyers prepared to file a new motion in their class-action lawsuit seeking to halt the termination of TPS protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador. The exchanges reveal tense internal debates that preceded the Trump administration’s actions, with senior U.S. diplomats and experts at other federal agencies warning that such moves would have dire humanitarian consequences. 

The emails show officials at DHS agencies searched for “positive gems” they could use to justify arguments that conditions in disaster-afflicted or war-torn countries had improved and that more than 300,000 TPS recipients living legally in the United States — some for as long as two decades — no longer needed protection from deportation.

The Trump administration has forged ahead with its plans, giving TPS recipients up to 18 months to leave. Along with President Trump’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the TPS decisions amount to his most consequential effort to reduce the number of foreigners living in the United States.

The lawsuit was filed in March by the ACLU and immigrant legal aid groups in the Northern District of California. Ramos v. Nielsen seeks an extension for TPS protections. 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the emails exchanged among administration officials show how they adopted a narrow and unconstitutional view of the TPS program to further an “anti-immigrant, white supremacist agenda.”

Trump officials reject those allegations, insisting that TPS was never meant to serve as a back door to long-term U.S. residency. They say decisions by previous administrations to repeatedly renew the protections violated the program’s “temporary” intent.

Congress created TPS in the 1990 Immigration Act to protect immigrants from being sent back to countries battered by natural disasters or civil strife. Since then, nearly a half-million people have benefited from the program, earning permission to live and work in the United States on a provisional basis.

Language in the law states that TPS can be extended if the unsafe conditions prompting the designation have not improved, if the nation is incapable of handling returnees or if there are “extraordinary and temporary” conditions that prevent their safe repatriation. Trump administration officials say they are adhering to the law, arguing that earthquakes or hurricanes that happened years ago should no longer be the basis for legal residency. They also note that the United States safely and routinely deports foreigners to countries with TPS designations.

“As intended by Congress, TPS was always meant to be a temporary mechanism to address urgent humanitarian conditions,” DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman said in a written statement

“After a thorough review, DHS determined some countries no longer met the statutory requirements to justify extension of TPS, and thus, pursuant to law, DHS was required to terminate TPS status,” Waldman said. “For countries where an extension is justified under the law, DHS has issued appropriate extensions to assist those affected by the conditions prescribed in the statute.” 

Under Trump, DHS has extended protections for immigrants from Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, while ending it for those from Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sudan and Nepal.

Jessica Karp Bansal, co-legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in Los Angeles, one of the groups that has filed suit with the ACLU, said the government emails reveal a political motivation to expel the immigrants using the most restrictive possible legal grounds.

“I think these show the way they got there was illegal, because they recognized that if they looked at TPS the same way that previous administrations did, asking whether it was safe to send people back, they could not terminate,” she said.

Some of the emails appear to depict staffers at DHS struggling to make a coherent case to end the protections. 

In one email, senior DHS official L. Francis Cissna told staffers the agency’s report recommending termination for Sudan “indicates that it remains unsafe for individuals to return” and that “termination does not appear to be warranted.” Then, he notes, the report goes on to recommend termination anyway — the finding Cissna sought. 

“The memo reads like one person who strongly supports extending TPS for Sudan wrote everything up to the recommendation section, and then someone who opposes extension snuck up behind the first guy, clubbed him over the head, pushed his senseless body out of the way, and finished the memo,” wrote Cissna, who was sworn in as director of CIS six weeks later. “Am I missing something?”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.