WASHINGTON -- Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report on Thursday arguing that the Trump administration's 2017 plan to end Temporary Protected Status within 18 months for Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras was spurred by a desire to avoid the "electoral liability" of deporting thousands of longtime U.S. residents during Donald Trump's 2020 reelection campaign.
The report, titled Playing Politics with Humanitarian Protections: How Political Aims Trumped U.S. National Security and the Safety of TPS Recipients, used documents obtained from the State Department to show that Trump political appointees overrode the concerns of career State Department staffers about the best way to handle ending TPS for the three countries.
TPS is a temporary legal status given to foreign nationals of designated countries affected by armed conflict or natural disaster, allowing them to live and work in the United States for a limited time.
The career staffers warned that deporting nearly 300,000 people would have detrimental effects and split families in communities like Miami, home to the country's largest Haitian population, and it would create negative political and economic consequences abroad.
But the Trump administration overrode their concerns, and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ignored recommendations on Haiti that a 36-month TPS wind down would be better than the 18 months of notice originally announced in November 2017, the report said. The 36-month time frame would've meant that approximately 46,000 Haitians in the crucial swing state of Florida could face potential deportation around Election Day 2020.
"Our investigation revealed that in 2017, the Trump administration's political appointees provided Secretary Tillerson with written recommendations to in fact accelerate the termination of TPS with the 2020 election timeline in mind," said New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It's appalling that these political appointees literally advocated for the accelerated termination of TPS to strip hundreds of thousands of people of their legal status so they wouldn't be an electoral liability."
A court ruling put a stop to plans that would have led to deportations in the summer of 2019, and the Department of Homeland Security announced last week that TPS for Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan will be extended until January 2021 in order to comply with court injunctions.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said the Trump administration is willing to work on TPS but it has concerns about the way the program is structured and how long countries keep their TPS designation. TPS for Haiti was granted in 2010, TPS for Honduras was granted in 1999 and TPS for El Salvador was granted in 2001.
"My sense is the administration is willing to do a lot on TPS if we can deal with this national injunction against ending Temporary Protected Status," Rubio said. "Frankly, although I support extending all of those programs, it's not temporary if you can never end it."
But Democrats say State Department political appointees working in concert with White House adviser Stephen Miller pushed for an expedited end to TPS for the three countries that constitute the vast majority of TPS recipients. Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras account for about 298,000 of the approximately 315,000 people enrolled in TPS.
"We have very strong evidence that decision was ultimately affected by the personal and political reelection considerations of the Trump campaign," said Tom Jawetz, the vice president for immigration policy at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress.
The report's authors obtained a memo from Thomas Shannon, the most senior career diplomat in the State Department in 2017, in which he argued to Tillerson that he should renew TPS for Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras.
"It is rare for the State Department to be asked to comment on an issue with such immediate domestic political ramifications," Shannon wrote in a previously undisclosed memo in October 2017. "I understand the delicate nature of the decision. However, it is our purpose to provide the best possible foreign policy and diplomatic advice. From my point of view, that advice is obvious: extend TPS for the countries indicated."
A month later, the Department of Homeland Security, which receives official guidance from the State Department on TPS designations, announced that TPS would end.
At a Capitol Hill news conference about the report on Thursday, Juana Villanueva, a TPS holder from Honduras who has lived in the U.S. since 1998, and her daughter Liane Taracena, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen who is enrolled in college, said ending TPS would cause their family to be separated.
"She is a single mom and she is my support system," Taracena said. "Like ourselves, there are hundreds of thousands of other families with TPS, many of them who do have children, and it's really disheartening to think about all of those families possibly being separated from each other and having to decide to stay in the United States or having to go to an unfamiliar country they possibly don't know anything about."
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