Top Senate Dem: Officials timed immigration policy around 2020 election

Top Senate Dem: Officials timed immigration policy around 2020 election
© Greg Nash

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked the State Department inspector general Thursday to investigate interference by the Trump administation for political gain in a key immigration decision.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Graham blocks resolution recognizing Armenian genocide after Erdoğan meeting Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden MORE (D-N.J.) wrote Inspector General Steve Linick, asking for an investigation into interference by Trump political appointees on the decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti in 2017.

According to a report written by Menendez's committee staff, recommendations from American diplomats on the ground in those countries went unheeded. The report further alleged that Trump political appointees advised then-Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTillerson: Using American aid for 'some kind of personal gain [is] wrong' Nikki Haley fires the first shot in the GOP's post-Trump war State Dept. watchdog: Official's firing was case of political retaliation MORE to time the termination of TPS — a policy that allows nationals of countries that undergo catastrophe to stay and work in the United Sates pending a background check — around the 2020 electoral process.

ADVERTISEMENT

TPS designations are assigned, renewed or removed by the Homeland Security secretary, with advice on country conditions by the secretary of State.

Tillerson ultimately signed a letter to then-Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine DukeElaine Costanzo DukeChad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Senate paves way for Trump's next DHS chief Five things to watch at Supreme Court's DACA hearings MORE, advising her to end TPS designations for the three countries, against the advice of deployed diplomats.

In his Oct. 31, 2017, letter to Duke, Tillerson wrote, "The State Department has assessed that El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua no longer meet the conditions required for continued designation for Temporary Protected Status (TPS)."

Two State Department career officials — then-acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration Simon Henshaw and then-acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Francisco Palmieri — wrote a memo to Tillerson on Oct. 26, 2017, where they both recommended he end Nicaragua's TPS designation, but Henshaw recommended 18-month extensions for El Salvador and Honduras, and a six-month extension for Haiti.

Palmieri and the State Department policy planning staff (S/P), then under Brian Hook, recommended blanket terminations with delays; Palmieri asked for 36-month delays as suggested by diplomatic officials, and S/P requested 24-month delays.

The S/P staff included in their advice a warning that a 36-month delay would have electoral consequences.

"Although a 36-month wind down period is not precluded by the plain language of the statute, this period would be double the longest amount of time TPS status can be extended under statute. It would put the wind down of the program directly in the middle of the 2020 election cycle," read the S/P recommendation.

Markings on the memo initialed by Tillerson show he approved Palmieri's recommendations, but slashed the wind down periods to 18 months, the time period he ultimately recommended to Duke.

"Our investigation revealed that in 2017, the Trump administration's political appointees provided Secretary Tillerson with written recommendations to in fact accelerate the termination of TPS, with the 2020 election timeline in mind," said Menendez at the report's presentation Thursday.

Since the program's creation, both Republican and Democratic administrations have more or less automatically granted TPS extensions, particularly for countries in the Western Hemisphere.

The Trump administration early on signaled its intent to stop that practice, putting nearly 400,000 foreign nationals in the United States at risk of deportation.

The accusation comes as President TrumpDonald John TrumpWatergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was 'tipping point' for Trump In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book Obama: 'Everybody needs to chill out' about differences between 2020 candidates MORE is facing an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives over using foreign policy for personal political gain.

Menendez said that he did not yet have the basis to call for a criminal investigation based on the report, but later wrote Linick, asking for an investigation into the communications of three State Department officials involved in the 2017 TPS decisions.

"At the time that the memorandum was submitted to Tillerson, Taryn Frideres was Chief of Staff for S/P, Brian Hook was the Director of S/P, and Kimberly Breier was the S/P advisor responsible for the Western Hemisphere portfolio," wrote Menendez.

ADVERTISEMENT

Hook and Frideres are still in the department, Breier resigned in August after nearly a year as assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere.

Hook has been under investigation by the inspector general for alleged involvement in layoffs and staffing decisions targeting officials with presumed allegiances to the Obama administration.

A State Department official told The Hill the department does not comment on internal deliberations.

"We are aware that a report was released, but have nothing to add at this time,” wrote the official.

Menendez's report also shows how U.S. diplomats on the ground warned that the countries in question would not be able to repatriate the TPS holders, and a mass return could spur criminal activity and further illegal migration to the United States.

"A termination of TPS could undermine U.S.-Salvadoran efforts on a range of issues of mutual concern and fighting transnational criminal organizations, such as MS-13," wrote officials at the U.S. embassy in San Salvador in July.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump signs short-term spending bill to avert shutdown Senators urge Trump to suspend Huawei license approvals Tensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a statement “this damning investigation shows that in their political mad dash to punish immigrants no matter the cost, President Trump and his administration defied the guidance of career officials and endangered our national security."

"In ignoring numerous and emphatic warnings from senior and career State Department officials, the president put at risk the safety and wellbeing of nearly 400,000 TPS beneficiaries and their U.S.-citizen children and strengthened transnational gangs such as MS-13. The president’s disturbing pattern of putting partisan politics over our national interests is as alarming as it is consistent," added Schumer.

TPS terminations are on hold by court order after lawsuits calling into question the intent and execution of the Trump administration's TPS orders.

Still, the Trump administration last week announced a blanket extension of TPS work permits for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, Nepal and Sudan  — but not an extension of the country designations — until January 2021.