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WASHINGTON — Unable to support her family in Nepal, Ramba Regmi journeyed the more than 7,500 miles to the United States, leaving behind her husband and three children. For nearly 15 years, she worked in nail salons, sending money back home.
But in April 2015, tragedy struck in the form of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, devastating the South Asian country that sits along the sprawling Himalayas.
"They’re sleeping outside and we are worried and crying here, but thank God they’re okay," Regmi said of her family, which lacked shelter a month after the quake. Her son injured his leg.
"The house [is] broken, we can fix — but it’s people you know, thousands and thousands of people died, but thank God my children are okay," Regmi told NBC News.
The earthquake killed almost 9,000 and injured 22,000 more, according to Nepal's government. But a disaster that caused so much devastation created opportunity for Nepalese citizens like Regmi, who were awarded a humanitarian protection known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS). TPS affords residency and work permits to foreigners in the U.S. whose home countries become unsafe following a natural or man-made disaster.
For Regmi, who was previously undocumented, this allowed her to open her own nail salon in Brooklyn, New York. The money she earned helped pay for the estimated $30,000 in repairs for her family's home in Nepal, she says.
Now, her future is once more uncertain. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last week it would terminate the TPS designation for Nepal, adding it to a growing list of countries that are losing the protective status. Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, said "conditions in Nepal have notably improved" and gave the nearly 9,000 Nepalese TPS recipients still in the country 12 months to leave the U.S., according to The Washington Post.
Previously, DHS ended the TPS designations for El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. On Friday, DHS announced it was ending protections for nearly 57,000 Hondurans, giving them 18 months to leave the U.S. Citizens of those five countries, as well as Nepal, make up the vast majority of the United States' more than 320,000 TPS recipients. The Trump administration is also winding down a similar program benefiting 4,000 Liberians.
Supporters of president's hard-line immigration policies say that the administration is taking the right approach to TPS, while immigrant advocates contend that the decisions made under Trump have more to do with ideology and politics than they do with a fair evaluation of living conditions.
"What's happening is the Trump administration is taking seriously the determination of Congress that these designations should be temporary and that when conditions have recovered in these countries, that people should be expected to return home,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for stricter legal and illegal immigration policies.
Vaughan said that TPS "has acted like a de facto amnesty for people who have arrived in the country illegally."
But Anu Joshi, policy director for the New York Immigration Coalition, an immigrant advocacy group based in New York City, disagrees.
"It’s become increasingly clear that these decisions have not been made based on the statues which require a careful assessment of each countries conditions, but instead on this administration’s determination to enact an extremist anti-immigrant policy and agenda," Joshi said.
One apparent contradiction advocates point to: The final announcement for Haiti from then-acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke said the "extraordinary but temporary conditions caused by the 2010 earthquake no longer exist." But according to internal documents from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a subsidiary of DHS, said "many of the conditions prompting the original January 2010 TPS designation persist, and the country remains vulnerable to external shocks and internal fragility."
USCIS released the documents after being sued by the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, a non-profit that offers legal support to advocacy groups on immigrant rights issues.
As for Nepal, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, an agency of the United Nations, said "the reconstruction effort has been massive, but more remains to be done" — though the United Nations has not expressed a view on whether or not it feels the country is safe for people to return, as the U.S. claims.
Roshan Ghimire, a Nepalese TPS recipient who came to the U.S. as a student and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, laughed at the notion that the administration’s determination to end TPS was based on improved conditions. He said "nothing has changed" when he last visited in November.
“It's too early, just too early to cancel it. There’s 9,000 people going back to Nepal," Ghimire said. "What are they going to do there?"