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Thousands of Hondurans to Lose Protected Status in the U.S.

“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.CreditJohnny Milano for The New York Times

By Miriam Jordan

May 4, 2018

The Trump administration is ending temporary protected status for tens of thousands of Hondurans who have been allowed to live and work in the United States since 1999, following a hurricane that ravaged their country.

The decision, expected to be announced Friday, will strip protection from more than 50,000 Hondurans, the second-largest group of foreigners to benefit from the status, according to two officials at the Department of Homeland Security.

Determined to rein in both legal and illegal immigration, the Trump administration since last year has scrapped similar protections for citizens from several countries. This week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen determined that conditions have improved sufficiently in Honduras to warrant suspension of protected status for its citizens in the United States, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the decision in advance.

Program administrators likely will give Hondurans in the program a few months to get their affairs in order before having to leave.

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“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 Nepalese 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.

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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 massive 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 strife 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.”

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.

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Supporters of a program that gives people from some countries temporary protection from deportation rallied in San Francisco in March.CreditJeff Chiu/Associated Press

“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.

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.

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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. It set the new expiration date of July 5, and the government must announce a decision six months in advance.

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.”

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.

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 and has three children and grandchildren, said she had no intention of leaving.

“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,” she added.

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Ms. Paz, a nanny in Pacific Palisades, west of Los Angeles, has flown to Washington to advocate for continuation of the program.

Her employer, Julie Silver, said that Ms. Paz is an indispensable member of “the team” raising Sarah, 13 and Katie, 6, with whom she paints, does homework and enjoys meals. Thanks to her, they have learned some Spanish.

“She is completely part of our family. They are taking away her safety net for no reason at all,” Ms. Silver said. “We are going to go to bat for her and support her in any way we can because we love her.”

Ron Nixon contributed reporting.

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