WASHINGTON (CNN) - New Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen faces her first major test on immigration policy next week with a decision that could force upwards of 250,000 Central Americans to leave the United States or scramble to find a way to stay.
Monday is the deadline for deciding the future of a protected status for nationals of El Salvador, and the Department of Homeland Security is widely expected to announce an end to the program, which has offered work permits and the right to live in the United States.
More than 260,000 Salvadorans are covered by the program, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, but some experts estimate roughly 200,000 of them could be left without the protected status, based on previous department estimates. Salvadorans make up the largest share of immigrants protected by the program, and all of them have lived in the United States since at least 2001.
While the Homeland Security Department has not yet announced its decision, its actions this year have signaled a tougher approach to the program, which allows individuals from countries affected by crises like natural disasters, war and epidemics to stay in the US and work without being deported. The "temporary protected status," as it is known, lasts for about two years before needing to be renewed. El Salvador's status has been continually renewed since 2001, when it was granted after a series of earthquakes.
The pending deadline marks the first major immigration decision that will fall to Nielsen, who has thus far pledged to carry on the legacy of her predecessor and former boss, John Kelly, who is now White House chief of staff.
This fall, her department ended temporary protected designations for thousands of immigrants, including more than 50,000 from Haiti and thousands more from Nicaragua and Sudan, which critics say needlessly uproots contributing immigrants to send them back to unstable countries.
Acting Secretary Elaine Duke, however, extended protections for more than 80,000 Hondurans for six months because she said she was unable to reach a decision about whether conditions in that country had improved enough to terminate the protected status. That decision prompted heavy pressure from the White House to end the protections, sources said, though Duke later denied accounts that said she felt distressed and disappointed by the interference from Kelly.
Nielsen has the ultimate decision on whether to extend El Salvador's status, but advocates on the issue from both sides of the aisle anticipate a similar decision to that on Haiti, a struggling country as well, but one the department says has recovered from its devastating earthquake in 2010. If Nielsen opts to end the Salvadorans' protections, it likely would give them 12 to 18 months to apply for some other visa to stay in the United States or prepare to leave.
When the protections end, recipients revert to the status they have otherwise, which would likely leave a number of Salvadorans undocumented after nearly two decades of legally working and living in the United States.
Groups on the right that advocate for restricting immigration are pressing the Homeland Security Department to end the status for El Salvador, and were concerned during Nielsen's confirmation that she would be adequately hard-line in implementing President Donald Trump's immigration agenda.
"(Monday's decision) is a test of whether she properly reflects the Trump campaign's commitment to the people on these issues," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "We'd be very disappointed to see TPS extended yet again -- with no credible justification."
"Allowing them to stay longer only undermines the integrity of the program and essentially makes the 'temporary' protected status a front operation for backdoor permanent immigration," added Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA.
There is one area of agreement between the groups on the right like FAIR and NumbersUSA and advocates on the left who say ending temporary protected status for El Salvador would be an unnecessary and cruel move -- Nielsen's decision will toss a political hot potato to Congress.
In ending the protections for other groups, the Homeland Security Department has urged outraged lawmakers to enact legislation rather than continue to force the secretary to make the decisions.
"It will be couched in nice terms, but it actually will be a dramatic move," Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice Education Fund, a pro-immigration reform group, said of his expectation that DHS will urge Congress to act. "These are Salvadorans who have been living in the United States with work permission for almost 20 years. These are people who are American in all but their paperwork. And the idea that we're going to try to drive them back to a country that is engulfed in weak governance and corruption and violence is unthinkable."
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