Following an administration move to send home some Nicaraguans long granted U.S. protection, lawmakers from both parties said Tuesday that Congress needed to find a permanent solution to a program designed to offer certain foreigners a haven from war or natural disasters, and they appealed for the White House to reconsider.
The Trump administration said the temporary residency permit program, which has aided 5,000 Nicaraguans in the U.S. for almost two decades, will end for them in January 2019. A decision about how to deal with a similar program for 86,000 residents from Honduras is expected in July.
"The lives of thousands of law-abiding, hardworking people who contribute to America in every way will be thrown into danger and legal jeopardy," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. She added: "If the White House refuses to protect vulnerable people and keep families intact, Congress must pass a permanent, bipartisan fix."
Permanent fix urged
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, declined to comment on the decision announced Monday by acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, saying he hadn't examined at it closely enough. An agency statement said Duke urged lawmakers to enact a permanent fix to the temporary program, and recognized "the difficulty facing citizens of Nicaragua — and potentially citizens of other countries" — who have received protection under the program for close to 20 years.
Some Republicans also expressed criticism.
Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart said he was "deeply pained" by the administration's action, disagreed with it and urged the administration "to seriously reconsider the decision regarding Nicaraguan nationals."
Added Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida: "Continued short-term extensions have created anxiety and uncertainty not only for these immigrants and their families, but also for their employers and neighbors whose prosperity also depends on them. Congress has an opportunity to change that."
The program covers 435,000 people from nine countries ravaged by natural disasters or war and who came to the U.S., legally or otherwise, during the period their countries were covered by the presidential decree. Those countries are: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
That status was meant to be temporary, but the Bush and Obama administrations repeatedly renewed it because of concerns that the countries could not cope with the repatriation of so many former residents.
Since taking office, Trump has ended the temporary permit program for Sudan and issued a shorter-than-usual renewal for nearly 60,000 Haitians, who were designated for temporary permits after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
"This is a heartless decision that will rip families apart and inflict harm on some of our most vulnerable neighbors," said Representative Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat. She said she would push for passage in the GOP-led House of her proposal to grant those people legal permanent resident status and "create an opportunity for citizenship." Her legislation introduced last week would protect from deportation individuals who have been covered by the program for at least three years and offer them a path to naturalization.
To Senator Bob Menendez, the program "embodies the American ideals of compassion, generosity and human rights by extending a lifeline to people at the end of their rope."
The New Jersey Democrat said he was ready to "fight every step of the way until the White House drops their attacks on immigrant families, stops self-inflicting wounds to our moral standing as a nation, and finally listens to those of us who understand immigration is a part of what makes America great."