More than 50,000 Hondurans who have been allowed to live and work in the United States since 1999 will have 20 months to leave the country or face deportation, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced Friday, the latest in a series of DHS measures aimed at tightening U.S. immigration controls.
The Hondurans were granted temporary protected status (TPS) in 1999, shielding them from deportation, after Hurricane Mitch slammed their country and left 10,000 dead across Central America.
Under President Trump, DHS has been eliminating TPS programs one by one, arguing they were never designed to grant long-term residency to foreigners who may have arrived illegally or overstayed their visas.
In the past six months, DHS has ended TPS for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, 50,000 Haitians and 9,000 Nepalis, giving those groups 12 to 18 months to prepare a departure or secure some other form of legal status.
According to a DHS statement, Nielsen “carefully considered conditions on the ground” before making the Honduras decision.
“The Secretary determined that the disruption of living conditions in Honduras from Hurricane Mitch that served as the basis for its TPS designation has decreased to a degree that it should no longer be regarded as substantial,” the DHS statement read.
“Since 1999, conditions in Honduras that resulted from the hurricane have notably improved,” the statement continued, adding that the country has made “substantial progress in post-hurricane recovery.”
It was not clear from the DHS statement which improvements Nielsen was referring to. Honduras remains one of the most violent countries in the world and has been roiled by political instability since presidential elections last year whose legitimacy was rejected by the Organization of American States and other international observers.
Congress established TPS as a humanitarian program in 1990 to avoid deporting foreigners to countries that have been destabilized by natural disasters or civil strife.
The Trump administration hasn’t ended the protections for every eligible nation; in January, Nielsen extended TPS for nearly 7,000 immigrants from war-torn Syria.
More than 86,000 Hondurans received TPS protections after the hurricane, and the latest government estimates show that about 50,000 still depend on the designation to remain in the United States. Last November, DHS ended TPS for 2,500 Nicaraguans who were also allowed to stay after Hurricane Mitch.
Hondurans were the second-largest group of TPS recipients after Salvadorans, and many have lived most of their adult lives in the United States, running businesses, purchasing homes and raising American-born children.
Critics of the Trump administration say forcing otherwise law-abiding immigrants out of the United States is shortsighted and heartless, particularly at a time when Honduras and some other nations are teetering from gang warfare and political unrest.
“There is little doubt that the White House has been driving these TPS decisions based on ideology, not based upon what is best for our foreign policy interests and for the region,” said Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank.
“It makes the situation in Honduras and Central America worse and will assuredly come back to haunt us in time,” Appleby said.
Honduras is a significant source of illegal immigration to the United States, and many of the families who joined the migrant caravan through Mexico that captured the attention of President Trump last month said they fled their country in fear for their lives.
They joined thousands of other Central Americans who arrive every month at the U.S. border with Mexico to request asylum, many of them families or women with children.