US ends immigration protections for nearly 60,000 Hondurans

Ramba Regmi, an immigrant from Nepal and a business woman, stands inside her salon as she waits for customers to arrive in New York on Wednesday, May 2, 2018.
Ramba Regmi, an immigrant from Nepal and a business woman, stands inside her salon as she waits for customers to arrive in New York on Wednesday, May 2, 2018.
Bebeto Matthews/AP

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The Trump administration said Friday that it is ending special immigration protections for about 57,000 Hondurans, adding them to hundreds of thousands of immigrants from other countries battered by violence and natural disasters who are losing permission to be in the United States.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's widely anticipated decision not to renew temporary protected status (TPS) for Hondurans means an estimated 428,000 people from several countries face rolling deadlines beginning late this year to leave or obtain legal residency in other ways.

Hondurans will have until Jan. 5, 2020, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said.

President Donald Trump — who wants to curtail legal immigration and has been cracking down broadly on illegal immigration — and his supporters note that the protections were never meant to be permanent.

Immigrant advocates decried the move and contend that ending the status will drive people underground who have been establishing roots in the U.S. for years or decades, including having American-born children.

For Hondurans, the program known as TPS has been in place since 1999 after Hurricane Mitch devastated in the Central American nation the year before.

Nielsen said in a statement Friday that conditions had improved enough in Honduras to let people from there return safely. Hondurans were granted TPS in 1999, after Hurricane Mitch. But gang violence, recent political instability and other problems have continued to trouble the small Central American nation.

Honduran immigrant Leoncio Velasquez, who recently traveled back to Honduras to visit, disputes the federal officials’ assessment .

“Now they are saying Hondurans can return to Honduras, but it's not true," he said. "There is crime, there is extortion, there is narcotrafficking, and there is a lot of danger in Honduras, still."

Velasquez, 57, of Culver City is a U.S. citizen who arrived in here in the 1980s. His wife once had TPS protection, before she adjusted her status. Velasquez, who heads the group Hondurenos Unidos de Los Angeles (United Hondurans of Los Angeles), said there are as many as 80,000 Honduran-Americans in Southern California, and about 12,000 Honduran TPS holders.

Trump, his opponents argue, is effectively adding tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people to the ranks of those in the U.S. without legal status.

Velasquez said people with TPS are terrified of losing their jobs, because losing TPS will mean losing their work permits. But it’s unlikely that many will return voluntarily after nearly 20 years, he said.

“If you ask people, 'Do you want to go back to Honduras,' 90 percent of them will tell you no, because they don’t feel safe in Honduras,” Velasquez said.

Salvador Sanabria with El Rescate, a legal aid organization in downtown Los Angeles, works closely with Central Americans who have TPS protection.

“They are returning to a country facing a lot of crime activities, and a lack of public safety,” Sanabria said of the Hondurans. 

He said families whose breadwinners have the protected status are worried about the economic hardship from the loss of their work permits, including for their relatives back in Honduras.

“There are families that are depending on the remittances that we produce here with our work,” he said.

If deported, Hondurans are “being forced to return to a country that has not offered any economic incentive for them, and does not offer any public safety, or security for them,” he said.

Marta Connor, a 50-year-old union organizer in Southern California who has lived in the U.S. for decades and has three American-born children, said before the announcement that she wasn't leaving, regardless of the administration's policies.

"One thing I can tell you is I am not going to Honduras," she said, noting that many of the asylum-seeking migrants in a caravan that recently reached the U.S.-Mexico border are from Honduras. "If they are coming, why am I going over there?"

"There is no way I will go back," Connor said.

Around 437,000 immigrants hailing from 10 countries have had temporary protected status, a designation created in 1990 to allow people from countries affected by natural disasters like earthquakes or man-made disasters like war to have a short-term safe haven. Only a few thousand still have that status.

Those with it have generally been able to work and with permission, travel outside the U.S. and return.

Countries are added to the list as circumstances warrant, with renewals coming usually around every 18 months. While some countries have been taken off the list, others have stayed on it for extended periods, which critics say turns the program into default amnesty.

Under Trump, the Department of Homeland Security has terminated the program for Sudan, Nicaragua, Nepal, Haiti, and notably El Salvador, which accounted for more holders of the special status than any other nation.

They have been given deadlines to leave or gain legal status if possible, starting in November for Sudan and throughout 2019 for the other countries. Several groups are suing to stay in the U.S.

The protections have been extended for 6,900 Syrians who already have them, but the administration has said it won't take on new applicants. Decisions are upcoming for South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, which cover fewer than 1,700 people.

Daniel Sharp, legal director at the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, said he doesn't believe most immigrants with the status will leave after setting down roots with U.S.-born children, jobs and homes.

"People don't want to go back to being undocumented, but I don't think you are going to see a ton of people returning to their countries of origin," he said.

El Salvador actually had the protections twice, the first time in the early 1990s until December 1994. It's estimated that about 150,000 people were covered then.

Cecilia Menjivar, a University of Kansas sociology professor, said that while exact numbers are unknown, it's clear many stayed in the U.S. when the program ended. Some got permanent residency through family sponsorship, but immigration law has changed since then that "there are fewer avenues for legalization," she said.

Ramba Regmi, 53, a native of Nepal who's been in New York City for close to two decades, doesn't know what she's going to do. She spent many of those years without legal status after overstaying a visa but got protections after an April 2015 earthquake in Nepal killed more than 8,000 people.

With the legal authorization the program provides, she was able to go from working in a nail salon to owning one, where she employs three people. She financially supports her husband and adult children in Nepal, which she says still hasn't recovered from the earthquake.

"I never thought this was going to end, so what can I say?" Regmi said after the government declined last week to renew protections for about 9,000 Nepalis. "This is very difficult."

This story has been updated.