In January 2010, Haiti was rocked by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people and did widespread infrastructure damage. Afterwards among other measures, the United States extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians in the U.S.
The U.S. Congress established the TPS program in 1990 as part of the humanitarian program under the immigration system. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), when states face ongoing armed conflicts, an environmental disaster or an epidemic, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions, the TPS program offers opportunities to the nationals of those states to continue staying in the United States.
Beneficiaries are not removable from the United States, and they can obtain an employment authorization document. This temporary status has an expiration date subject to extension. Beneficiaries cannot acquire lawful permanent resident status simply because they are granted TPS, but they can apply through normal channels.
The U.S. government provided Haitian nationals in the U.S. with opportunities to apply for TPS, so they would not be required to return to their devastated country after their visas expired.
Last month, an earthquake, measured at 7.1 on the Richter scale, struck central and southern Mexico. This strongest-in-the-century earthquake killed more than 300 people, displaced others and collapsed buildings.
Yet, even as search and rescue operations were underway in Mexico, the U.S. continued initiating removal proceeding against undocumented Mexican nationals. And TPS was not extended to Mexican nationals in the U.S.
What is the difference between Haiti and Mexico?
Why not Mexico?
USCIS writes on its website that TPS is not automatic after natural disasters; the response capacity of the country and the geographical span of affected areas, for example, are among the factors the U.S. government uses to make the decision.
“Mexico is such a large country, so there are safe places where you can be, and it has not been destroyed in the way that Haiti has been destroyed [by the earthquake] several years ago when it hit,” Doris Meissner, a senior fellow and the director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), told VOA’s Mandarin Service.
But even if the scale of the disasters is different, some Mexicans will have difficulties returning home to earthquake ruined neighborhoods.
“I think it should be discussed.” Mark Hetfield, the President and CEO of Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) told VOA Mandarin. “People who cannot go back because of the earthquake, [giving them TPS] certainly makes sense.”
Jeanne M. Atkinson, the Executive Director of Catholic Legal Immigration Network, says the Mexican government has not requested TPS status. In any case, she finds it unlikely that the U.S. government would offer TPS to Mexican nationals after its reluctance to extend Haiti’s TPS benefits last spring.
Trump and TPS
According to news reports, the Trump administration plans on reexamining the TPS program with an eye to phasing it out as part of broader changes in U.S. immigration policy.
Wendy Young, President of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), says that TPS is going to “fade away and fall of the map” of U.S. immigration policy. KIND serves unaccompanied children that face the removal proceeding in the United States.
“[T]he idea being that things happen in countries that create overall conflicts, violence, natural disasters, where it is inhumane to return nationals back to that setting.” Young said. “I think this administration unfortunately and wrongly views it as a kind of an Achilles’ heel in our immigration program, and that there is nothing ‘temporary’ about temporary programs.”
Around 58,000 Haitians are in the United States under the TPS program. Their status was set to expire in July 2017. Republican and Democratic members of Congress and non-governmental immigration organizations pleaded with the Department of Homeland Security for an extension because Haiti is still undergoing reconstruction. Haitians’ TPS was extended to January 22, 2018. But DHS says it will be the last extension and Haiti’s TPS will end then.
Besides Haiti, the USCIS list of TPS countries includes El Salvador (extended through March 9, 2018), Honduras (extended through January 5, 2018), Nepal (extended through June 24, 2018), Nicaragua (extended through January 5, 2018), Somalia (extended through Sept. 17, 2018), South Sudan (extended through May 2, 2019), Sudan (ends November 2, 2017), Syria (extended through March 31, 2018), and Yemen (extended through September 3, 2018). TPS benefits to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia ended this spring after the Ebola outbreak was brought under control.