The Trump administration is quietly considering allowing immigrants from countries devastated by war or natural disasters to stay in the United States even as it has let some protections from deportation expire, according to three people familiar with the situation.
The Department of Homeland Security told nearly 60,000 Honduran hurricane victims — who came to the United States under the Temporary Protected Status program — on Friday that they must return to their native country or seek another form of legal residency.
But administration officials may allow some immigrants — whose programs may have expired — to remain in the United States through another process, known as Deferred Enforced Departure or something similar.
The Trump administration still wants as many immigrants to leave the United States as possible, but some officials acknowledge that the immigrants' native countries may struggle to handle the influx of people because of the poor conditions on the ground.
"They're very sympathetic," according to one of the people. "They understand the conditions in these countries."
Some Trump officials realize that deporting these immigrants could hurt their countries and slow recovery by reducing the amount of money that is sent back home, according to a former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House.
But the White House denied they were looking into any new types of special status. “We have no intention of giving DED to any TPS beneficiary," said a White House official, who spoke anonymously per administration policy.
President Donald Trump has said repeatedly that its up to Congress to protect TPS holders. A DHS official said the department "is not aware of any White House plans for any new DED designations.
Immigrants who find refuge in the United States regularly send money back to their home countries, which boost the economy. Salvadorans, for example, sent home $4.57 billion in remittances in 2016, according to the country's central bank.
Royce Murray, policy director at the American Immigration Council, said the drop in remittances will impact the stability of the country and possibly cause more residents to flee.
“There are people of good conscience in the administration who...understand that ending TPS and drying up remittances back to Honduras and sending potentially 50,000 people and their children back to that country would do nothing but further destabilize an already volatile situation," said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Jawetz is the former chief counsel on the Immigration Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.
But by allowing them to stay, Trump risks alienating those who supported him during the presidential campaign when he made cracking down on immigration one of his top priorities.
"It would be a real cop-out if the administration simply replaced the TPS designation for Honduras with Deferred Enforced Departure," said Chris Chmielenski, deputy director of NumbersUSA, which wants to restrict the number of immigrants allowed in the U.S., both legally and illegally. "They should either end TPS — and help protect the integrity of a program that's supposed to provide "temporary" relief — or have the guts to renew it again."
Historically, Deferred Enforced Departure was used when DHS concluded that a country no longer met the requirements for a TPS extension, but Jawetz said nevertheless for foreign policy or other reasons the president deemed it appropriate to continue to delay the enforcement of their removal.
Trump has yet to use that discretion. In March, his administration announced it would tell more than 4,000 Liberians in the United States through DED to leave by March 2019. It is the only country currently granted protections through presidential authority.
Liberia was originally granted TPS status in 1991 because of a civil war that left 200,000 dead before it ended in 2003. TPS expired in 2007 but they were allowed to remain in the country first by President George W. Bush and then President Barack Obama.
"By converting a TPS designation into DED, you’re simply replacing one quasi-amnesty with another," said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Different set of initials, but they mean the same thing: a short term, but always repeated status as a momentarily legal alien. President Trump vowed to end the flagrant abuses of our immigration system – replacing TPS with DED preserves the status quo."
In a statement about Liberia in March, Trump said, “Only Congress can legislate a permanent solution addressing the lack of an enduring lawful immigration status for those currently protected by DED who have lived and worked in the United States for many years."
Congress created TPS in 1990, allowing more than 300,000 immigrants from about a dozen countries to remain in the United States .
The administration has already let TPS expire for most countries, including El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Liberia and Nepal. Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras comprise the bulk of the immigrants. It extended programs for Syria and South Sudan, both of which are involved in civil wars. Yemen and Somalia will expire in July unless the administration extends the designation.
"They are systemically dismantling the program," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group.
About 57,000 Hondurans sought refuge in the United States after Hurricane Mitch struck the Latin American country, killing more than 11,000 and left thousands homeless. It remains one of the poorest and most violent countries in the region, plagued by gang violence and drug trafficking.
A former DHS official familiar with the decisions said it is always a struggle.
"It is a sympathetic case if someone has been here 10 or 20 years," the official said.
Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said widespread news of a caravan coming from Central America did not help Honduran's case for renewal considering many in the caravan are from Honduras.
"Announcing continued deportation protection for Hondurans at this moment in time could very well be seen as encouraging Hondurans to come illegally to the United States, and the Trump administration should not encourage people to do that," she said.
Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald contributed
Percentage of TPS-eligible population in some states:
Source: New American Economy, a bipartisan effort that advocates for the economic benefits of immigration reform