GOP senator voices concern about Trump order, hasn't decided whether he'll back it
Trump close to wiping out TPS program for immigrants
With the end of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 56,000 Hondurans earlier this month, the nearly 30-year-old immigration program is essentially dead.
TPS had survived under several Republican and Democratic administrations, which mainly used the program as a pressure valve to allow Central American and Caribbean immigrants to live and work in the United States, often sending remittances home.
But the Trump administration says the program has been abused, allowing people to stay in the United States long after crisis conditions have ended in their home countries.
The Trump administration has ordered the end of TPS for more than 300,000 immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has so far ordered the end of TPS benefits to all but about 7,000 people from four countries, nearly booting the entire TPS population.
Under the program, immigrants from countries that have suffered a natural or man-made disaster are allowed to live and work in the United States while their home country recovers.
When ending the TPS status, the Trump administration has given the immigrants time to leave the country. The wind-down periods have ranged from a year to 18 months for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Nepal and Sudan whose TPS designations have been terminated.
Previous administrations interpreted TPS rules to allow beneficiaries to stay in the United States as long as their return would impose a significant burden on their home countries. But the Trump administration has used a stricter interpretation, ending TPS based on countries' recovery from the original disaster that triggered their designation.
The move has left hundreds of thousands of Caribbean and Central American TPS recipients in limbo, with many searching for a way to stay in the United States with their families.
The nearly-200,000 Salvadorans protected by TPS, for instance, have been allowed to live and work in the United States since at least 2001, after two earthquakes ravaged the country.
They now have until September of 2019 to either apply for different immigration status - a tall order, since TPS does not create a path toward permanent residency or citizenship - or leave the country.
Immigration activists have long argued that TPS holders, particularly those who've been in the United States for decades, should be given a path to citizenship.
TPS holders were included as a second priority - only after so-called Dreamers - as lawmakers sought over the past decade to negotiate a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Several proposals to make permanent TPS benefits have been floated in Congress, but they've been overshadowed by talks to legislate to protect Dreamers - immigrants brought to the country illegally as minors.
In the past, successive administrations renewed TPS - especially for countries in the Western Hemisphere - in a more or less perfunctory manner.
White House chief of staff John Kelly introduced the Trump administration's stricter interpretation of the TPS statute when he became DHS secretary in 2017. He put the onus on Congress to help the TPS recipients, telling lawmakers they should change the laws they don't like.
In an NPR interview Thursday, Kelly explicitly said for the first time that longtime TPS holders should be given a path to citizenship.
"I think we should fold all of the TPS people that have been here for a considerable period of time and find a way for them to be [on] a path to citizenship," he said.
"Congress should pass a law to give permanent status to those who've had Temporary Protected Status. I am not going to bow to political pressure, however, to break the law to do Congress's job. They need to do it," she said.
But activists say neither Kelly nor Nielsen were bound by statute to end the designations. They say it's a matter of interpretation on whether the law says TPS designations must end when a country recovers from the initial disaster, or whether general humanitarians conditions in a country allow the administration to extend TPS.
Jill Bussey, director of advocacy at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, criticized DHS's approach of terminating designations as a way to force legislative action.
"I find the approach inhumane," she said.
And Democrats in the Senate are investigating whether the termination reviews for Haiti, Honduras and El Salvador - the bulk of the 300,000-plus TPS holders - were conducted according to statute.
By law, DHS has to consult with other agencies, normally the State Department, to determine whether terminating TPS designation and sending beneficiaries would destabilize recipient countries.
According to a Washington Post investigation, diplomatic cables sent by U.S. diplomats in Haiti warned against repatriating the country's 50,000 TPS beneficiaries, but the Department of State under then-Secretary Rex Tillerson recommended the end of Haiti's designation anyway.
"I am concerned that then-Secretary Tillerson recommended that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) terminate the TPS designations for El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras in deliberate disregard of the counsel and expertise of State Department officials in Washington and at the U.S. Embassies in all three countries," said Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in a memo sent Friday.
In that memo, reviewed by The Hill, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff concluded that the White House actively sought a "pre-determined" outcome despite warnings from in-country diplomats.
TPS has been a lifeline for parts of the Western Hemisphere, both because it's allowed some of their citizens to flee their countries and because TPS holders send a substantial amount of money home as remittances.
"You're going to have countries that I think are going to have a very difficult time accepting those folks without serious instability," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who's been central to immigration negotiations over the past decade.
Still, administration officials say it's up to Congress to change immigration laws to fix what both the right and left view as a "broken system."
In his NPR interview, Kelly promoted the "four pillars" approach suggested by the White House in immigration negotiations earlier this year.
Under that approach, recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program - and potentially TPS holders - would receive a path to citizenship in exchange for border wall funding, a change from family-based to merit-based migration and cancellation of the diversity visa lottery.
"Right now, I would like to see legislatively the four pillars enacted," Kelly said. "And I think those that did not grasp the four pillars and pass it have let down 1.8 million DACA people."