A federal appeals court decided Monday that President Donald Trump can phase out protections for hundreds of thousands of families that have been living and working legally in the U.S., many of them for decades.
The 2-1 ruling by the California-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a block on Trump's ending of temporary protected status, or TPS, for more than 300,000 people. The administration could expel people from Sudan, Nicaragua and Haiti as soon as March and from El Salvador by November 2021.
Immigrants from El Salvador make up the largest group of TPS recipients, an estimated 263,000, but a bilateral agreement will allow Salvadorans an extra year to stay in the U.S. if the courts ultimately uphold Trump's termination of the program.
"To end protections for ... TPS families, including the more than 130,000 people who have been risking their lives as essential workers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, would be very cruel; especially during these difficult times," Paul Andre Mondesir, lead organizer for the National TPS Alliance, said in a statement.
The appeals court ruling means that those immigrants will be required to find other ways to remain in the U.S. legally or depart after a wind-down period of at least six months, longer in the case of El Salvador. However, the case is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, which could delay the outcome.
The decision comes between campaign swings by Trump and Democrat Joe Biden through Florida, a critical battleground state and a must-win for Trump to win the White House. Biden is headed Tuesday to Central Florida, where he hopes to shore up support among Latino voters.
The Biden campaign has called the TPS decisions "politically motivated," and it has said Biden would protect enrollees from being returned to unsafe countries.
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A recent poll of Florida Latinos showed Biden leading among Hispanic voters, 53 percent to Trump's 37 percent. Although Trump leads among Cuban Americans, Biden leads among Puerto Ricans, the poll shows. When grouped together, all other Latino groups in the state, including people with Central American ancestry, favor Biden.
People with temporary protected status are generally in the country when disaster or political upheaval strikes in their home countries, such as the catastrophic earthquake that wiped out large parts of Haiti in 2010 or Hurricane Mitch, which hit Central America as the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane in 1998.
The Trump administration has argued that most countries in the program have recovered from the related disasters or conflicts and that the status has been renewed for years beyond its need.
The status must be renewed periodically by the secretary of homeland security, who can extend it for six- to 18-month intervals. People with TPS do not have pathways to legal residency, a precursor of citizenship, without leaving the country.
'Fuels Trump's war on immigrants'
"This disappointing court decision fuels Trump's war on immigrants. Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump has worked relentlessly to strip away the legal status of hundreds of thousands of individuals with Temporary Protected Status," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a nonprofit immigration advocacy organization.
Judge Consuelo Callahan, an appointee of Republican former President George W. Bush, wrote in a 54-page opinion that the Trump administration's decisions to phase out the protections were not reviewable and therefore should not have been blocked.
Callahan also rejected a claim by the plaintiffs that Trump's past criticism of nonwhite, non-European immigrants influenced the TPS decisions.
"While we do not condone the offensive and disparaging nature of the president's remarks, we find it instructive that these statements occurred primarily in contexts removed from and unrelated to TPS policy or decisions," she wrote.
The termination of TPS for Haitians is also subject to separate litigation in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.
Trump has made his tough immigration stance a hallmark of his presidency and his re-election campaign.