Trump administration overruled U.S. embassy officials to end immigration program

U.S. embassy officials in El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti spent months warning Washington that ending temporary legal status for hundreds of thousands of immigrants would harm those people, all three countries, and the "U.S. national interest."

The Trump administration ignored the objections and has been ending the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program anyway, according to a report prepared by Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and obtained by USA TODAY.

Embassy officials in all three countries concluded that the three governments were incapable of absorbing the return of so many people, according to the report, which was first reported by The Washington Post.

In Haiti, U.S. officials said repatriating 46,000 of its people who have been legally living in the U.S. would strain the ability of the Haitian National Police to maintain control of the struggling nation.

In El Salvador, embassy officials said returning 195,000 people to a country already struggling to provide enough economic opportunities would likely accelerate the flow of illegal immigration headed north.

In Honduras, U.S. officials said 57,000 people coming back would become targets of crime, and recruitment, from the very same gangs that the Trump administration is spending so much time fighting against.

And in each case, the cables warned of possible backlash from the host governments that would likely limit their willingness to cooperate with U.S. officials on illegal immigration, anti-drug operations and other regional problems.

"The diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassies in El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras each recommended that it would be in the 'U.S. national interest' to renew the TPS designations for their respective countries," the report concluded.

Yet one by one, the Department of Homeland Security — in consultation with the White House and the State Department — have been ending TPS for each of those countries. All told, the administration has announced the end of TPS for six countries, which represent 98% of the 317,000 people who have used the program to legally live and work in the U.S. for decades.

The report said former secretary of State Rex Tillerson was aware of all those warnings but "ignored a body of evidence" when he recommended that the program be phased out. The report also said the White House "sought to repeatedly influence the decision-making processes" at State and Homeland Security "in order to ensure a pre-determined outcome."

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led the inquiry and said Tuesday that he is requesting an investigation by the Government Accountability Office.

“I will fight against this cavalier-recklessness that would jeopardize our national security simply to fulfill a campaign promise and pursue an agenda of mass deportation that tears families apart, and separates mothers and fathers from their U.S. children," Menendez said.

Complicating things is the fact that TPS holders have given birth to 273,000 children while in the U.S., making them U.S. citizens, according to the Center for Migration Studies. That means their parents will have to decide whether to return to their home country with their U.S. citizen children in tow, return to their home country alone and leave their children behind, or stay in the U.S. and face the constant threat of deportation.

The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Temporary Protected Status was created by Congress in 1990 to allow people from countries hit by natural disasters or armed conflicts to legally live in America while their home countries recover.

Republican and Democratic presidents have extended these protections, concluding that each of the countries on the list had not recovered enough to absorb tens of thousands more residents. The Trump administration has taken a different approach, arguing that the program has been extended too many times and that conditions have improved enough in each country to end the emergency designations.

The president's supporters have cheered each decision by repeating a common phrase: "T" is for "temporary." Defenders of the program say that cold calculation may be accurate, but ignores the hundreds of thousands of families who will be devastated if they must leave the U.S., where some have lived for nearly 30 years.

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