The Trump administration said Monday it will end a special program that for years has protected more than 5,000 Nicaraguans against deportation, but stopped short of ending similar protections for immigrants from Hondurans or other countries.
While the announcement means that the Nicaraguans who now enjoy so-called temporary protected status, or TPS, will become vulnerable to deportation in roughly 14 months, the decision was less severe than feared by immigration advocates.
Not only did the administration defer a decision on the status of some 86,000 Honduran immigrants, but officials from the Department of Homeland Security said the administration would support action by Congress to find a permanent solution that could allow them and other protected migrants to stay.
"The administration would support Congress' effort to find such a solution," said a senior department official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, as required by administration ground rules.
The administration had a deadline Monday on whether to extend protections for Nicaraguans and Hondurans, which were set to expire in January. Many have lived in the U.S. for years, some as long as two decades. The largest communities are in Southern California and Texas.
Elaine Duke, acting secretary of Homeland Security, determined that conditions in Nicaragua have improved enough to justify sending migrants from that country back. They will have until January 2019 to leave, the senior official said. But Duke decided she still needed more information on Honduras, the official said. She extended the temporary status for Hondurans for at least another six months, through July 5.
The Honduran government had appealed for more time, which the Nicaraguan government did not do, the senior official added.
Trump administration officials have been signaling their desire to end the protections, arguing that a program that started almost two decades ago to provide a temporary respite after natural disasters and civil wars has instead become a permanent benefit for people who had entered the country illegally.
But it's now unclear whether the administration intends to kill the protections for larger groups of people who came from other troubled countries.
By far the largest number, 212,000, are from El Salvador; their protections expire in March. In all, about 325,000 residents from 10 countries, including Haiti, Syria, Somalia and Nepal, are protected under the program.
People with temporary protected status can't be detained by immigration agents. They can obtain work permits and get permission to travel outside the country.
One analysis by the Center for Migration Studies found that 49,100 Salvadorans and 5,900 Hondurans with protected status live in California, including more than 29,000 Salvadorans in Los Angeles County. Another 36,000 Salvadorans live in Texas, more than half of them in the Houston area, along with 8,500 Hondurans, the study found.
Close to half of all the Haitians with protections live in South Florida, the study found.
After Hurricane Mitch wrecked much of Central America in 1998, the U.S. extended temporary protection to immigrants who had entered the country illegally from Honduras and Nicaragua. The program's protections have been renewed periodically ever since.
Advocates for the immigrants say that even though the natural disasters that triggered the program are long past, it's wrong to end the protections for people from Central American countries such as Honduras and El Salvador, which are now convulsed by drug-related violence. They also note that many of the protected immigrants have long ago put down roots in the U.S., in many cases marrying citizens and having children — or in some cases grandchildren — who are citizens.
The next deadline, later this month, will involve whether to renew protections for about 50,000 Haitians whose protection will expire on Jan. 22. Haitians were first given temporary protected status after a catastrophic earthquake in 2010, which killed more than 300,000 people, displaced more than 1.5 million and triggered a widespread cholera epidemic.
In May, then-Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly announced that he would extend the protections for Haitians for just six months, saying that the island nation had recovered sufficiently to justify sending people back.
"Haiti has made progress across several fronts since the devastating earthquake of 2010," he said in a statement, warning Haitians that it was time to get travel documents and make preparations to leave.
Some humanitarian groups say that conclusion was far too optimistic. The island still struggles to recover from the quake and a series of storms, notably Hurricane Matthew in 2016, they argue. In January, a United Nations report found that 2.5 million Haitians still had need of assistance.
The protections don't apply to all immigrants from the covered countries. To be eligible, people must have been residents in the U.S. from around the time their country received the designation. Applicants must provide the government detailed information about where they live — a fact now creating anxiety among recipients who fear they could easily be found and detained once their protections are gone.
But the administration officials who briefed reporters said that immigration agents won't immediately round up people whose protections are expiring. The department still makes a priority of arresting criminals, and most TPS residents don't fit that bill, they said.
The personal information provided by the applicants won't be "proactively shared" with enforcement agents, they said.
Migrants from an additional 11 countries formerly had temporary protections that were allowed to expire. Most recently the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were dropped from the program. Those protections expired in May in a decision by the Obama administration.
The Trump administration recently decided to end the protection for Sudan, effective in November 2018.
Since more than 90% of the people in the program are from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti, immigration advocates say that canceling their protections would be highly disruptive.
"It creates a huge humanitarian crisis where there needn't be one," said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of the Pennsylvania branch of HIAS, a Jewish refugee aid organization. "They work, they pay taxes, they get involved in their schools. It really does damage to everyone, not just to them."
One of the recipients hoping for the program to survive is Maria Victoria Reyes, who left her hometown of La Union in El Salvador 18 years ago, fleeing crushing poverty.
After a series of earthquakes hit the country in 2001, she received temporary protected status, and she put down roots in Silver Spring, Md, where she now helps take care of her two granddaughters, Liliana, 7, and Sofia, 3.
The prospect of losing her status is the latest challenge for Reyes and her family, who survived a gas explosion in their apartment complex last year that killed seven people. Reyes had to leave her job as a restaurant worker and now depends on the Affordable Care Act to pay for her medical expenses. Without legal status, she would no longer be eligible for the coverage.
Recently, Liliana approached Reyes after watching the evening news.
"Are they going to take away your TPS. You can't leave.You can't leave us behind," she told her grandmother.
"No, baby. I hope to God they won't," she replied.