The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Monday it would cancel a temporary residence program that's allowed nearly 59,000 Haitians to live and work in the United States.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke gave Haitians living with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) until July 22, 2019, to either leave the country or apply for a different legal immigration category.
Under TPS, citizens of designated countries that have undergone a major natural or man-made disaster are allowed to remain in the United States legally until conditions in their home nations recover.
To qualify for TPS, foreign citizens must already be in the United States, legally or illegally, when the designation is made.
Haiti was designated a TPS country after the earthquake in 2010 that devastated the already impoverished island nation.
While Haiti is still the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, senior administration officials said Monday that Duke "determined that temporary conditions as result of the earthquake no longer exist and as pursuant to statute [TPS] must not be extended."
Earlier this month, Duke canceled TPS benefits for nearly 5,000 Nicaraguans, giving them just over a year — until Jan. 9, 2019 — to make arrangements, but she extended a Honduran designation, which protects 86,000 people.
The Washington Post reported shortly after that decision that White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE berated Duke for not canceling the Honduran designation. According to that report, Kelly was angered that Duke was "kicking the can down the road" and that her decision could threaten Trump administration Homeland Security secretary nominee Kirstjen Nielsen's Senate confirmation process.
Both the White House and the Department of Homeland Security denied those allegations.
And it was Kelly who, as then-DHS secretary, extended the Haitian TPS six months in May, saying that time "should 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 should also provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients."
Nielsen, who had sailed through her first confirmation hearing, was recalled before the Senate Homeland Security Committee after Duke's first TPS decision. Her nomination was eventually approved by the panel last week.
Either Duke or Nielsen, if she's confirmed by the Senate in time, will have to decide the fate of nearly 200,000 Salvadoran TPS recipients in January.
Activists and business leaders critical of the Haitian TPS decision expressed concern Monday about the potential for a similar decision on El Salvador.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a liberal immigrant rights group, said TPS terminations are being ordered by the Trump administration "not because of careful analysis of the country conditions but because of the strong push of nativists who want to drive people out of the country."
Administration officials said the TPS statute leaves little room for interpretation, and gave Duke no choice but to terminate Haiti's TPS.
According to their interpretation, first espoused publicly by Kelly, only country conditions directly linked to the disaster that initiated the TPS designation can be taken into account to decide whether to extend or terminate TPS.
When Kelly made his decision on Haiti, he cited the reconstruction of the country's presidential palace as evidence that challenges borne by the 2010 earthquake had been surpassed, regardless of other issues faced by the country.
Previous administrations had taken a more holistic approach, extending TPS for citizens of countries based on a general assessment of conditions on the ground.
Jon Baselice, director of immigration policy at the Chamber of Commerce, called the announcement "clearly disappointing" and warned it would be "highly disruptive" to industries that employ large numbers of Haitians, especially in Florida.
But Baselice expressed hope that Duke's de-facto continuation of Honduran TPS earlier this month could be a signal that Salvadoran TPS might be spared.
Given that both Honduras and El Salvador's designations were put in place after Hurricane Mitch hit the countries in 1998, Baselice said perhaps the length of time Hondurans have been in the country had played a part in Duke's decision.
—Updated at 10:22 p.m.