A form of legal immigration status will expire soon for 300,000 Haitians and Central Americans residing legally in the United States, some for nearly two decades, but the Trump administration has given little indication it plans to renew the benefit.
The immigrants have been allowed to live and work in the United States under a program called Temporary Protected Status (TPS) that shields some migrants from deportation if their nations are stricken by natural disasters, civil wars or other calamities.
Permission to stay must be periodically renewed by the Department of Homeland Security, and in the coming weeks, the agency will decide the fate of about 195,000 Salvadorans, 57,000 Hondurans, 50,000 Haitians and 2,550 Nicaraguans. Once the protections lapse, those immigrants would be subject to deportation.
Their predicament is not as well known as the "Dreamers" who have been allowed to stay under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program that Trump is canceling. But an end to TPS protections could have wide-ranging consequences, especially in cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, Houston and Washington, where many of the beneficiaries and their U.S.-born children reside.
Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups are urging the administration to extend the TPS protections, warning that the humanitarian and economic costs of expelling so many long-term U.S. residents would be steep.
Moreover, they say, the countries remain crippled by violence, disease and poverty, and the abrupt loss of the cash remittance payments the immigrants send from the United States would deal a heavy blow to those nations' feeble economies.
DHS officials say the agency's acting secretary, Elaine Duke, has yet to make a decision and continues to consult with the Department of State, which must provide DHS with specific country-by-country information about whether conditions in those nations have ameliorated.
But administration officials say the TPS program was never intended to be a way for migrants to remain indefinitely in the United States, and they view it as part of a broader culture of lax immigration enforcement they want to remedy.
"We are looking at the fact that temporary protected status means temporary, and it has not been temporary for many years, and we, the U.S. government, have created a situation where people have lived in this country a long time," DHS spokesman David Lapan told reporters this week.
"Every time, we give an extension, and then give an extension, and soon we have people living here 20-plus years under what was supposed to be a temporary program," Lapan said. "When do you stop that?"
DHS has until Nov. 6 to announce its plans for the roughly 60,000 Hondurans and Nicaraguans whose benefits will expire Jan. 5. They were allowed to stay after Hurricane Mitch killed 10,000 across Central America in 1998, so many have been in the United States for at least two decades.
Haitians received a similar reprieve after the 2010 earthquake that left at least 200,000 dead. But the roughly 50,000 Haitians who have TPS protections could be forced to return if DHS does not grant an extension in the coming weeks. The deadline for that announcement is Nov. 23, Thanksgiving Day.
In May then-DHS Secretary John Kelly renewed TPS protections for those Haitians for six months, far less than the 18-month waivers granted by the Obama administration. In a statement at the time, Kelly called it 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," and "to provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients."
Immigration policy analysts say DHS could make a similar six-month, start-packing-your-bags extension for Central Americans, including the nearly 200,000 Salvadorans whose protections expire in March.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to reduce immigration to the United States, said the Trump administration's big test will be what DHS decides to do with the Haitians, given Kelly's characterization of the previous extension as a "limited" one.
"That will determine whether it's more than rhetoric," Krikorian said. "That's when we'll get a sense of how committed the White House is to making sure the 'temporary' in Temporary Protected Status is really temporary."
DHS officials would not say what instruction, if any, they have received from the White House, where officials referred questions to DHS.
Honduras and El Salvador have some of the highest homicide rates in the world, and tens of thousands of their citizens continue to attempt to come to the United States illegally each year.
Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, still suffers from cholera introduced by United Nations troops who were sent after the earthquake, in addition to food shortages and other damage from recent hurricanes.
But administration officials say the return of tens of thousands of migrants to Haiti and Central America would benefit those nations, because their citizens will return with skills, values and investment capital acquired during their lives in the United States.
This week 20 Democratic senators, led by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) sent a letter to Duke and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging an extension of the TPS deadlines. There are about 30,000 TPS beneficiaries living in the Washington area with their families, according to immigrant advocates.
"These individuals are the most thoroughly vetted people in the country," said Tom Jawetz, an immigration policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
He said TPS beneficiaries are the parents of 190,000 U.S.-citizen children, and the anxiety of not knowing what will happen to their parents is inflicting "devastating emotional, social and educational harm."
But like the DACA debate, the TPS decision has become a proxy for a broader argument about immigration and the enforcement of U.S. laws. The Trump administration has been signaling it wants to break with its predecessors and appears to want to make a statement, said Doris Meissner, the top immigration official under the Clinton administration,
"The deeper point is they don't want people here from other countries for humanitarian reasons," said Meissner, now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "They don't see these various elements of immigration policy as particularly positive for the U.S., or as a broader expression of our values and image in the world."