The Trump administration is granting 50,000 Haitian nationals who arrived in the U.S. after a devastating 2010 earthquake another six months in the country without fear of deportation.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials announced the extension of so-called temporary protected status (TPS) on Monday. The agency had faced a Tuesday deadline to reveal their plans.
DHS Secretary John Kelly said the extension will give the Haitians more time to prepare to eventually return to their country.
“This six-month extension 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,” Kelly said in a statement.
He added that the delay “should also provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients.”
TPS status is intended to temporarily protect citizens of foreign countries from returning to dangerous areas hit by civil war, natural disasters or “other extraordinary and temporary conditions.”
The Haitian nationals have been under TPS since 2010, when a powerful earthquake rocked the island nation. TPS for Haitians was last extended on Jan. 23, 2016, for 18 months and was due to expire on June 22.
In April, James McCament, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, wrote a memo claiming conditions in Haiti were such that the 50,000 Haitians under TPS could safely return to their country.
In the leaked memo, McCament recommended extending the program for six months, out of a possible 18.
But South Florida lawmakers from both sides of the aisle wrote to Kelly in March, saying Hurricane Matthew, which hit in October, has slowed recovery on Haiti and urging him to grant an extension.
“I have been working diligently with DHS and the administration, and I feel confident they will extend the TPS program for Haitians,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Told the Miami Herald last week.
Florida, New York and Massachusetts have large Haitian populations.
Officials said Kelly decided to extend TPS based on current conditions on the ground. But they believe that improving conditions merited only a six-month extension.
They cited the end of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, scheduled to conclude in October, and reconstruction of the presidential palace, knocked down by the 2010 earthquake, as signs of a better situation on the ground.
Advocacy groups also jumped on the issue after The Associated Press earlier this month published leaked emails from a DHS staffer asking for numbers on crime rates involving Haitian nationals in the U.S., as well as how many Haitians sought government assistance.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi penned an op-ed in Time magazine last week accusing the administration of basing its TPS considerations on a “ubiquitous, racist stereotype of Black migrants.”
DHS officials vehemently denied the allegations, saying decisions about TPS were based solely on conditions on the ground in Haiti as set forth by statute. They said reports on crime rates and use of social services by specific groups were separate from decisions on TPS.
TPS status does not lead toward permanent residency but does allow beneficiaries to work while in the U.S.
Individuals are allowed to apply for other visas or residency permits. DHS officials stressed that once protective status lapses, Haitian nationals without other legal status will be subject to deportation.
Haitian TPS beneficiaries will be required to re-register to be allowed to seek employment. If approved, their employment authorization will be extended until Jan. 22, 2018.
Only Haitians currently protected by TPS will be covered by the extension; DHS will not consider new applicants.
After the 2010 earthquake, which killed over 200,000 people, a cholera epidemic in Haiti killed nearly 10,000 more.