The Trump administration has given 2,500 Nicaraguans with provisional residency 14 months to leave the United States, announcing Monday that it will not renew the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation that has allowed them to remain in the country for nearly two decades.
But Trump officials deferred a decision for the much larger group of 57,000 Hondurans who have been living in the United States with the same designation, saying the Department of Homeland Security needed more time to consider their fate.
The decision was likely to displease immigration hard-liners who have urged the administration to end the TPS program on the grounds that it was never intended to bestow long-term residency to those who may have entered the country illegally. The two groups were shielded from deportation after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998, and their TPS protections have been routinely renewed ever since.
Monday's announcement was anxiously awaited by about 200,000 Salvadorans and 50,000 Haitians whose TPS status is due to expire early next year. But administration officials did not include those countries in their announcement.
DHS acting secretary Elaine Duke appeared to deliberate right up to Monday night's deadline, and the six-month extension for Hondurans will probably leave the decision to Duke's successor. President Trump has nominated Kirstjen Nielsen, the deputy White House chief of staff, to be the next DHS secretary, and she will face Senate confirmation hearings Wednesday.
According to Monday's announcement, Nicaraguans will have until Jan. 5, 2019, to leave the United States or change their residency status. Duke had determined the adverse conditions in Nicaragua left by Hurricane Mitch no longer exist, officials said.
Nicaragua's government, led by leftist President Daniel Ortega, did not formally request a TPS extension, they noted, whereas leaders from Honduras and El Salvador have waged a vigorous lobbying campaign to renew it.
Asked why Duke chose to put off the decision on the Honduran immigrants, whose protections expire in January, officials said she needed more time and more conclusive information.
"Based on the lack of definitive information regarding conditions on the ground compared to pre-Hurricane Mitch, the Acting Secretary has not made a determination at this time, thereby automatically extending the current TPS designation for Honduras for six months — through July 5, 2018," DHS officials said in a statement.
But the statement left open the possibility of ending the protections for Hondurans, adding, "it is possible that the TPS designation for Honduras will be terminated at the end of the six-month automatic extension with an appropriate delay."
Administration officials said Duke was sensitive to the fact that the Hondurans and Nicaraguans have lived in the United States for two decades or more, and she urged Congress to enact a permanent solution for a program that was meant to be temporary.
Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter to Duke essentially giving DHS the green light to lift protections for Central Americans and Haitians, telling her that unauthorized immigrants from those countries no longer warranted an exemption from deportation.
TPS was created by Congress in 1990 to avoid sending foreign nationals to countries too damaged or unstable to receive them because of natural disasters, armed conflict or health epidemics.
Trump officials say previous administrations have disregarded immigration laws for too long, and they said Monday's decision was one signal that the era of automatic renewals for TPS recipients has ended. The administration has also canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and sharply cut the number of refugees eligible for resettlement in the United States, amid other efforts to limit immigration.
Hegly Barahona, 50, who cleans homes and buses restaurant tables in the Washington suburbs, arrived from Honduras in 1996, and if sent back there she said she would have no way to financially support her son. He plays lacrosse at Ohio Valley University in West Virginia, she said.
"He's a good boy," Barahona said. "How would I be able to help him from Honduras? There's no work there." Barahona said she would probably remain in the United States illegally and "stay as long as possible."
DHS ended TPS for several African nations this year, including Sudan and Sierra Leone, but Central Americans and Haitians make up the vast majority of TPS recipients, and they are the longest tenured.
Carmen Paz, 50, has lived in the United States since 1998, and she said the TPS program allowed her to trade a life in the shadows for one with full-time, formal employment and a driver's license.
Paz cleans hotel rooms at a Sheraton in Rockville, Md. She said she began suffering headaches and insomnia after her health insurance provider declined to renew her policy beyond January, pointing out that her legal residency will soon expire.
"I would lose my driver's license, my health insurance, my job, everything," she said.
The announcement was not the worst-case scenario immigrant advocates were bracing for after the State Department report, but Democratic leaders assailed it nonetheless.
"The Trump Administration's irresponsible decision to end TPS for Nicaraguans will tear apart families and upend the lives of these hard-working individuals," Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a statement Monday. "Deporting families who are contributing to the economic and social fabric of our nation isn't leadership; it's a reckless and callous abuse of power."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the decision "a cowardly assault on thousands of families in communities across the nation" and denounced the administration's "senseless prejudice."
Trump administration officials acknowledge TPS beneficiaries are from countries afflicted with poverty, corruption and crime. But they say those problems should be addressed in other ways, and returning migrants can help foster development in their home countries.
DHS has until Thanksgiving Day to announce its plans for nearly 50,000 Haitians with protected status. In May, then-DHS Secretary John F. Kelly renewed TPS for Haitians, but only for six months, far short of the 18-month extensions repeatedly granted by the Obama administration. They were allowed to stay in the United States after a 2010 earthquake devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed 200,000.
Kelly, now White House chief of staff, said the purpose of the six-month extension 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."
If recipients lose their protections, many are expected to defy orders to leave, and DHS has their addresses, phone numbers and other information on file. But a senior administration official said Monday that Citizenship and Immigration Services would not automatically forward their personal information to immigration enforcement agents, and they would not be a priority for arrest and deportation.