The Trump administration has given nearly 60,000 Haitians with provisional legal residency in the United States 18 months to leave, announcing Monday that it will not renew the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) that has allowed them to remain in this country for more than seven years.
The decision came after the Department of Homeland Security determined that the "extraordinary conditions" justifying their presence in the United States following a 2010 earthquake "no longer exist," a senior administration official said.
"Since the 2010 earthquake, the number of displaced people in Haiti has decreased by 97 percent," acting Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke said in a statement. "Significant steps have been taken to improve the stability and quality of life for Haitian citizens, and Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens."
The 18-month deadline, Duke said, will allow for an "orderly transition," permitting the Haitians to "arrange their departure" and their government to prepare for their arrival.
The Haitians are among more than 300,000 foreigners, the majority of them illegal arrivals from Central America, living here under TPS. The designation was created in 1990 to shield foreign nationals from deportation if the executive branch determined that natural disasters or armed conflict in their countries had created instability or precarious conditions.
Successive administrations have regularly renewed their status, and many of the Haitians have U.S.-born children.
But the Trump administration has repeatedly noted that the program was meant to be temporary, not a way for people to become long-term legal residents of the United States. Administration officials have said that decisions about further extensions will be made on the basis of whether initial justifications for protection still exist.
Monday's announcement comports with a broader administration effort to restrict immigration to the United States and increase efforts to expel those who have no permanent legal status.
Earlier this month, the administration announced that it would not renew the provisional residency of 2,500 Nicaraguans. They were given 14 months to leave the United States.
But Duke deferred for six months a decision for the much larger group of 57,000 Hondurans living here under the same designation, saying that more time was needed for consideration. The deferral came after an unsuccessful White House effort to press her to end their TPS authorization, officials said at the time.
Nicaraguans and Hondurans have been shielded from deportation since a devastating 1998 hurricane hit those nations.
TPS status for 200,000 Salvadorans, here since El Salvador was struck by earthquakes in 2001, is due to expire in January. They are by far the largest group of TPS recipients.
More than half the Haitians affected by Monday's announcement live in Florida, where lawmakers had asked that they be allowed to remain. The lawmakers cited ongoing economic and political difficulties in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, as well as a still-raging cholera epidemic.
"I traveled to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 and after hurricane Matthew in 2016. So I can personally attest that Haiti is not prepared to take back nearly 60,000 TPS recipients under these difficult and harsh conditions," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), one of several GOP lawmakers who joined Democratic leaders in chastising the decision on Twitter. Ros-Lehtinen is co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill that would extend TPS for Haitians and others.
Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was less reserved in his criticism of the decision.
"Donald Trump's cruelty knows no bounds," he said in a statement. "He's taken away protections for immigrant children and their parents, and now he's going after U.S. residents whose home countries have been devastated by war and environmental disaster."
Rocio Saenz, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, which claims thousands of members living in the United States under TPS, called the decision "heartbreaking, and harmful in every way."
TPS holders, who include a relatively small number of Africans in addition to Central Americans and Haitians, "have more than 270,000 U.S.-born children," she said in a statement, "and thousands of grandchildren. After all of this time, no conceivable purpose is served by upending all of that and ordering them to return to some of the most dangerous and precarious countries on earth."
But the senior official, one of several who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity set by the administration, said that "the law is relatively explicit, that if the conditions on the ground do not support a TPS designation, then the secretary must terminate."
Duke had "assessed overall that extraordinary temporary conditions" that justified the designation in the first place "had sufficiently improved such that they no longer prevent nationals of Haiti from returning," the official said.
As the Haitian status was due to expire this past spring, then-DHS Secretary John F. Kelly extended it for six months but said that conditions may not warrant further extension. Kelly, now the White House chief of staff, visited Haiti shortly after that initial announcement and later joined Vice President Pence for a meeting in Miami with Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.
Duke, in her statement, said that she met recently in Washington with Haiti's foreign minister and the Haitian ambassador to the United States and consulted other U.S. government agencies.
"In 2017 alone," Duke said, "U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducted extensive outreach to the Haitian communities throughout the country." Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) hosted a meeting last week with Duke to which all members of the state's congressional delegation were invited.
Days before the decisions about Nicaraguan and Honduran were announced, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed Duke that the State Department assessed that TPS was no longer necessary for the Central Americans or the Haitians.
The senior official who briefed reporters said that the 18-month "wind-down" period for the Haitians was enough time "to allow families with U.S.-born children to make decisions about what to do, and make arrangements."
Some immigration experts have speculated that many Haitians are likely to seek residency in Canada, particularly in French-speaking Quebec, to avoid being sent home.