Last November, the acting director of the Department of Homeland Security, a career civil servant named Elaine Duke, received a phone call from John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. He was “irritated,” a White House official said at the time. Duke had just decided to extend the deadline for a special designation, known as Temporary Protected Status, or T.P.S., that allowed some sixty thousand Hondurans who had been living legally in the United States for nearly two decades to continue renewing their papers. Duke’s decision not to cancel their status, Kelly told her, “prevents our wider strategic goal” on immigration. The White House was looking for ways to reduce legal immigration and to deport anyone without legal status.
Duke retired from D.H.S. earlier this year, and last week the new Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, a protégée of Kelly’s, cancelled T.P.S. for the Hondurans. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump Administration had made the T.P.S. cancellation over the sustained and forceful objections of career diplomats at the State Department. Last year, according to the Post, officials from U.S. embassies as well as regional experts sent cables to Washington outlining reasons to extend T.P.S. not just for Hondurans but for other groups, including Salvadorans and Haitians. Rex Tillerson, who was then the Secretary of State, disregarded the advice, and Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to the President, pressured D.H.S. officials to cancel the program. Tillerson spoke with Duke by phone last fall, and told her that ending T.P.S. “was just something she had to do.” She wasn’t persuaded, and she pushed off the decision for six months, by which time Nielsen was in charge of the department.
The Hondurans are not the only group to lose the protection. Last fall, the Administration ended T.P.S. for forty-six thousand Haitians and for twenty-five hundred Nicaraguans; in January, it cancelled the status of two hundred thousand Salvadorans. Part of a 1990 immigration law, T.P.S. was created to temporarily allow refugees fleeing natural disasters and social unrest to live and work legally in the U.S. The law never specified, however, how long the protections were supposed to last. The government granted T.P.S. to Hondurans after Hurricane Mitch devastated the nation, in 1998, but, in the years that followed, poverty, government corruption, and gang activity turned the country into one of the most dangerous in the world. Sending tens of thousands of people back to the nation now would only add to the instability, and cause more Hondurans to head north in search of safety and work. To avoid a humanitarian crisis, Republican and Democratic Administrations granted extensions to T.P.S. year after year, though, in so doing, they introduced another significant complication: the immigrants established deep roots in this country. They joined the workforce, bought homes, paid taxes, and started families. There are now two hundred and seventy thousand U.S. citizens with Haitian, Salvadoran, or Honduran parents who are losing their T.P.S.
Last week, D.H.S. justified the cancellation on the narrowest possible grounds. “The disruption of living conditions in Honduras from Hurricane Mitch,” the official statement read, “has decreased to a degree that it should no longer be regarded as substantial.” Technically, this was accurate, but it was also deceiving. Diplomats, foreign-policy experts, former ambassadors, and government officials had all warned the department that cancelling T.P.S. for the Hondurans would undercut U.S. interests in the region, and that such a move would amount to ignoring the international factors that shape immigration patterns. One former D.H.S. official called the position “stupid and mean-spirited”; another told me that it was “pointless.” Everyone agrees that T.P.S. is a flawed policy, but the cancellation struck the officials I spoke with as typical of the Trump agenda: it made the White House look tough, and it satisfied anti-immigrant hard-liners, but it was shortsighted and counterproductive. “The decision on T.P.S. confirms that, when it comes to migrants, the White House is driven by domestic politics,” Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, told me.
In 2015, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis in which tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America showed up at the American border, seeking asylum, the Obama Administration included Honduras in an initiative called the Alliance for Prosperity. The initiative was a seven-hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar aid package to the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, designed to address the corruption and the crime that are viewed as the root causes of migration. Leahy, who championed the initiative, told me that D.H.S.’s decision on T.P.S. directly contradicted years of U.S. thinking about the complex dynamic of governance, crime, and migration in Central America. He said, “The whole premise has been that our engagement with these countries, our support for the Alliance for Prosperity, our significant investment are about promoting stability and security and economic opportunities, in the belief that, over time, it will reduce the incentives for people to leave.” James Nealon, the Ambassador to Honduras under President Obama and, until he retired recently, a D.H.S. official under President Trump, told me, “We finally had a bipartisan consensus in Congress that we needed to invest in Central America and to get at the push factors, the root causes, of immigration. We’re going to set back our efforts.” Many of the Hondurans won’t have places to live when they return, Leahy told me, and there is virtually no chance that they’ll find gainful employment. Sending them back will also hurt Honduras’s already struggling economy; twenty per cent of the G.D.P. there comes from remittances sent by immigrants working in this country.
On Wednesday, I spoke with a former Trump Administration official who was involved in the decision-making on T.P.S. last fall. The official told me, “You had career people arguing in favor of extending T.P.S. When they sent along their recommendations, their memos would stop dead in their tracks or get rewritten.” The official blamed one particular office at the State Department—the policy-planning shop—which Tillerson had revamped as part of an initiative to streamline the bureaucracy. In the past, the office functioned as an in-house think tank, offering policy advice to the Secretary; under Tillerson, it became a centralized decision-making body that further concentrated influence at the top of the department hierarchy. Though the idea was to make the State Department more agile, the effect was often the opposite. “It’s the place where memos go to languish until they’re O.B.E.—overtaken by events,” a former State Department official told me. According to a former D.H.S. official, “The gridlock was a real problem for us when it came to T.P.S. Sometimes we would get reports from State on country conditions after the Secretary had made her decision.”
Several bureaus at the State Department made recommendations on the T.P.S. issue. One—called Population, Refugees, and Migration (P.R.M.)—recommended extending T.P.S.; another—Western Hemisphere Affairs (W.H.A.)—advised against it. (W.H.A.’s position was a surprise to many, given its support for extending T.P.S. in previous years.) There were also questions about how many months it should take to wind down T.P.S. The policy-planning office sided with Western Hemisphere Affairs, and offered additional context to Tillerson on why it made sense to end the status. One document that circulated among the various parties made reference to the 2018 midterm elections in the U.S., suggesting that there was a political benefit to cancelling T.P.S., according to an official who read it. “This was highly irregular, and it was inappropriate for us to put in a paper,” the official told me. (The State Department denies that there was any discussion of the 2018 midterms in relation to T.P.S.)
The final decision on T.P.S. ultimately falls to the Secretary of Homeland Security. Given Nielsen’s closeness to Kelly, there was little surprise when she decided to end the protections. Under the Trump Administration, D.H.S.—which has a sprawling portfolio that includes the Coast Guard, fema, and a cybersecurity division—has mostly made news for its positions on immigration. In the weeks before Nielsen cancelled T.P.S. for Hondurans, she had spoken out about a “crisis” at the border, involving a caravan of fifteen hundred Central American migrants travelling north, through Mexico, to seek asylum in the U.S. A Fox News broadcast brought the migrants—almost all of whom were Honduran—to the attention of the President, who immediately began fulminating against U.S. immigration laws. (They were “pathetic” and riddled with “loopholes,” he said.) Within days, he called for more National Guard troops to be stationed at the border, and within weeks D.H.S. and the Justice Department announced a new “zero-tolerance policy” that would criminalize border crossers and separate families.