Immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua who have Temporary Protected Status in the United States will learn by Monday whether that status is to be extended.
If the Department of Homeland Security does not extend TPS for the two countries by November 6, permission to live and work in the U.S. will expire for thousands of Hondurans and Nicaraguans on January 5.
Honduras and Nicaragua became TPS-designated countries in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch cut a swath of devastation through them. In Honduras, "the hurricane killed 5,657 people and displaced approximately 1.1 million people," U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says on its website. The storm also destroyed about 70 percent of the country's infrastructure.
Nicaragua fared no better. USCIS says 3,045 people were killed and 885 were reported missing.
"Landslides and floods destroyed entire villages and caused extensive damage to the transportation network, housing, medical and educational facilities, water supply and sanitation facilities, and the agricultural sector," the agency says.
Since then, TPS status has been renewed several times for the two countries on the grounds that they were wracked by subsequent environmental disasters and had not fully recovered from Mitch.
Miami immigration attorney Stephanie Green told VOA's Spanish Service the main argument for renewal this time around was economic. "The economy of those countries is not strong," she said. "They're among the poorest countries in the hemisphere."
Meant to be temporary
The Trump administration has indicated it will take a harder line on TPS than previous ones. TPS allows citizens of countries hit by natural disasters or war to live and work in the U.S. until their homelands have recovered.
"We're looking at the fact that TPS means temporary," DHS spokesman David Lapan said about two weeks ago. "It has not been temporary for many years, and we have created a situation where people have lived in this country for a long time."
In September, acting DHS Director Elaine Duke ended TPS status for Sudan though extended it for South Sudan.
In May, then-DHS Secretary John Kelly extended TPS status for Haiti for only six months, not the year Haiti's government had requested.
Kelly, now the president's chief of staff, indicated another extension was unlikely.
He said the six months "should allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States, and should also provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients."
Haiti's TPS designation expires in January, and DHS will have to decide on an extension by a November 23 deadline. "They usually decide on extensions right before a reregistration period occurs. If you get a work permit that's good for a year, maybe three months before the work permit expires, they'll decide whether they are going to extend TPS or not," Green said.
According to the Congressional Research Service, about 50,000 Haitians have TPS status as well as 57,000 Hondurans and 2,550 Nicaraguans.
To people who have lived and worked in the U.S. for years, returning home could be a shock.
"None of the countries that currently have TPS in this hemisphere are ready to receive all of the people that might be returned," Green said. "They don't have the resources. They don't have the employment. They don't have the housing. They don't have medical facilities. They don't have educational facilities."
Yet, going home voluntarily may be the best choice available to people who lose TPS status. If they try to stay in the U.S., they do so without "legal authority to be here," Green said.
Anyone who participated in TPS would be easy for immigration officials to track down, simply because of all the information they would have provided on their TPS applications.
"They want to know your name, your date of birth. Of course, they want to know your country of birth. They want to know your telephone number. They want to know where you work. They want to know where you were educated. They want to know everything about you. And, yes, they will have all of your information," Green said.
She added, "They are already deporting thousands of people. There is nothing to stop them from deporting thousands more."
After Honduras and Nicaragua, TPS for El Salvador expires March 9. El Salvador got a TPS designation after earthquakes in 2001. The Congressional Research Service said 195,000 Salvadorans have TPS. A decision on whether to extend the program is due January 8.
Ten countries currently have TPS benefits: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nepal and Yemen.
Jose Pernalete of VOA's Spanish Service contributed to this report.