Tens of thousands of Hondurans who have lived in the United States for up to two decades must prepare to leave, government officials announced Friday, a decision that effectively spells the demise of a humanitarian program that has protected nearly half a million people who had sought refuge from unstable homelands.
The Trump administration is ending temporary protected status for Hondurans who have been allowed to live and work in the United States since 1999, after a hurricane that ravaged their country. With an estimated 86,000 people currently registered, Hondurans represent the second-largest group of foreigners who have benefited from the program.
Determined to rein in both legal and illegal immigration, the Trump administration since last year has scrapped protections for more than 300,000 citizens from countries, mainly in the Caribbean and in Central America, that have suffered natural disasters. On Friday, the Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, said she had determined that conditions have improved sufficiently in Honduras to warrant suspension of protected status for its citizens in the United States, according to a department statement.
The announcement comes just days after a caravan of 300 Central American migrants arrived at the United States border, including many Hondurans seeking refuge from gang-related violence and political turmoil.
Hondurans in the program have until January 2020 to get their affairs in order and depart.
“I did everything right: I worked hard, started a company, had two children and made investments here,” said Samuel Contreras, a licensed contractor on Long Island who arrived in 1998, shortly after Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras. “The bank approved a $300,000 mortgage because I have good credit and income. Now I don’t know what will happen.”
Two weeks ago, the administration announced 9,000 Nepalis with similar protection must leave. In January, it canceled protection for 200,000 Salvadorans, notifying them to depart by September 2019. Last year, it decided that 45,000 Haitians must leave by July 2019 and 2,500 Nicaraguans must go by January of that year.
But of all these countries, Honduras is perhaps the most volatile. The Central American nation has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Irregularities in last November’s presidential election have led to huge street protests, which have turned violent.
Signed into law by President George Bush in 1990, the temporary protected status program once enabled some 435,000 people from 10 countries crippled by natural disasters, war and other adversities to live in the United States.
“T.P.S. will still be on the books, but will have been virtually emptied of beneficiaries at a time of the greatest number of forcibly displaced in recent history and an unprecedented number of complex crises giving rise to displacement,” said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York.
Immigrant advocates and the Honduran government had asked the United States to extend the program, as has happened several times since 1999. This week, more than 600 faith leaders signed a letter asking the administration for an 18-month extension, calling a termination “unconscionable.”
“This can’t be,” said Cristiane Rosales-Fajardo, founder of NOLA Village, an advocacy group in New Orleans, where Hondurans outnumber other Hispanics. “They rebuilt our houses and the city after Hurricane Katrina. When nobody wanted to come, they were here bringing New Orleans back to life.”
On Twitter, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman from South Florida, called the administration’s decision “wrongheaded” and detrimental to families and the economy.
Jessica Morales Rocketto, political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, whose members include beneficiaries, said the reversal amounted to a “callous policy.”
“The cancellation of T.P.S. for Honduran immigrants is a death sentence for many of those who would be sent back to a country being roiled by political repression and violence,” Ms. Morales said.
According to the Center for Migration Studies, Hondurans with protected status have 53,500 American-born children; 85 percent participate in the labor force, compared with 63 percent of the overall United States population, and nearly 20 percent have mortgages.
“I never took a cent from the government,” said Mr. Contreras, the Long Island contractor.
The end of protection for his wife, who is from El Salvador, was the first blow to the family of Mr. Contreras, who has become an immigration activist at an organization called Make the Road New York.
The Trump administration says that a program designed to provide temporary, disaster-related help has instead become a quasi-permanent green light for hundreds of thousands of people. It argues that the only criteria the government should consider in continuing the program is whether the original reason for the designation — in this case, devastation from the hurricane — persists.
“Since 1999, conditions in Honduras that resulted from the hurricane have notably improved,” the Homeland Security Department statement said. “Additionally, since the last review of the country’s conditions in October 2016, Honduras has made substantial progress in post-hurricane recovery and reconstruction from the 1998 Hurricane Mitch.”
Critics of the program agree.
“The hurricane was a generation ago, and Honduras long ago reverted to its regular messed-up state, not the special post-hurricane messed-up state required by the T.P.S. statute,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors curbs on immigration. “There can be no honest basis for an extension.”
The program provides temporary legal status and work permits to people already in the United States, whether they entered legally or not. The Homeland Security secretary decides when a country merits the designation and whether to renew it, if conditions warrant it.
Hondurans have been on tenterhooks since last year, when T.P.S. designation for their country was up for renewal. In November, the government allowed it to automatically extend for six months, citing a need for further assessment.
Among the 86,000 Hondurans who currently have protection under the program, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, 45,600 re-registered for the six-month extension. An unspecified number out of the total have obtained legal status in the United States, the agency said, and, thus, will not have to leave.
T.P.S. holders carry a card that is similar to a driver’s license, which enables them to work legally. They also have Social Security numbers. However, they are not entitled to federal or state loans and other assistance.
Catherine Sarmiento, 23, who has had protected status as a Honduran since age 8, finished four years of college last year and found a job as a nuclear medicine technician at a hospital in Florida. Her parents and sister, also living in Florida under protected status, face the loss of their legal resident status and work permits, too, she said. “We’re all worried,” she said. “The whole family is worried.”
In a statement, the foreign ministry of Honduras said it “profoundly lamented” the end of the program for its citizens who had integrated into the United States by working hard and contributing to the economy.
About 61 percent of Hondurans lived in poverty in 2016, according to the World Bank, and Honduras has the biggest gap between rich and poor of any country. Hondurans working in the United States under protected status account for 12 to 15 percent of remittances sent to the country, money typically sent to help relatives.
Don Emilio Valle, 73, who lives in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, said he receives $400 monthly from his son Emilio in Dallas to support his wife and three grandchildren.
“With that money we can survive and feed ourselves,” Mr. Valle said. If the money dries up, he added, “we’ll have nothing.”
Work prospects for Hondurans forced to return there would be bleak, said Raf Ponce, the deputy coordinator of the Social Forum for the Foreign Debt and Development of Honduras, a research institute in Tegucigalpa, the capital.
“The Honduran labor market demands people with a low level of preparation, mostly relatively cheap labor,” he said, adding that the Honduran work force is overwhelmingly young, and many of those likely to return from the United States are more educated, older and likely to face discrimination if they seek work.
Many facing the loss of their protected status said they would resort to living in the shadows, like the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, rather than return to their troubled homeland.
Sonia Paz, 55, who arrived in Los Angeles when she was 22, has three children and grandchildren, and said she had no intention of leaving. She works as a nanny in Pacific Palisades, west of Los Angeles.
“I have nothing in Honduras,” she said. “To go back would be the kiss of death.” Her hometown is San Pedro Sula, notorious for gangs that target people with relatives in the United States for extortion. “They find out that you were in America and take the little you have away from you, or kill you.”
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