WASHINGTON — The Trump administration says it will strip legal protections for 86,000 Hondurans living in the United States — including 1,900 in Maryland — the latest group of longtime undocumented residents who face the prospect of deportation to their home countries.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, announced Friday the end of temporary protected status for Hondurans, saying conditions in the Central American nation have vastly improved and that it can safely accommodate its returning citizens. The status, which had been set to expire July 5, will be extended until January 2020 to give Hondurans time to prepare.
The decision affects about 1,900 Hondurans in Maryland, concentrated largely in Montgomery County, Prince George's County, Baltimore and Baltimore County, according to the New York-based Center for Migration Studies and the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland.
Many of those affected have lived in Maryland for years, said George Escobar, senior director of services for CASA. The group opposes the administration's move.
"These are highly vetted individuals," Escobar said. "A big majority have U.S. citizen children. This is an affront, an attack on our communities."
Sen. Chris Van Hollen said Friday he has introduced legislation that would permit qualified program recipients to apply for legal permanent residency.
"These families are part of our communities — they own businesses and contribute to our economy," the Maryland Democrat said in a statement. "They are our neighbors. And they have lived here for years and call America home."
Republican President George H.W. Bush and a Democratic Congress created temporary protected status to provide a haven for people living illegally in the U.S. whose home countries suffered wars or natural disasters. The protections were extended to Hondurans in January 1999, two months after Hurricane Mitch swept through the country, killing 7,000 people and leaving 1.4 million others homeless.
"Based on careful consideration of available information, including recommendations received as part of an inter-agency consultation process, the secretary determined that the disruption of living conditions in Honduras from Hurricane Mitch that served as the basis for its TPS designation has decreased to a degree that it should no longer be regarded as substantial," the Homeland Security Department said in a statement.
Hegly Barahona, 50, said she has lived in Montgomery County since the beginning of the program, and raised her son there.
"It's so sad what is happening," said Barahona, who lives in Kensington and does restaurant and housekeeping work. "We have a life in this country. It's really dangerous [in Honduras]. There are lot of gangs. I have a lot of friends that have been killed."
She said her son, Giovanni, was born in the United States and is a citizen, but relies on her for financial support.
Giovanni attends Ohio Valley University in West Virginia. When he turns 21, he might be able to petition for his mother to receive legal residency.
But "It's a very expensive and long process and very costly for many families," Escobar said.
Past administrations have granted multiple extensions for immigrants from countries such as Honduras that continue to struggle with extreme violence and chronic political instability. In the most recent extension for Hondurans, in 2016, the United States said the country was still suffering lingering effects from Mitch and other disasters.
But the Trump administration has been far more strict, insisting that the program shouldn't be a permanent pass to stay in the United States. The administration has ended protections for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan and Nepal, but extended them for those from South Sudan, still riven by a civil war.
Owing partly to their location in the densely populated Washington-to-New York corridor and a reputation among immigrants for being affordable, Baltimore and other Maryland communities are landing spots for many families fleeing strife in their home countries or seeking better educational or job opportunities in the United States.
Maryland is home to the fourth-largest community of Salvadorans with temporary protected status in the nation — about 20,000 people — according to the Center for Migration Studies. The Trump administration announced in January it was revoking their status.
Government officials in Honduras, immigration advocates in the United States and Democratic members of Congress had lobbied the administration to make an exception for the troubled Central American nation, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, high rates of violence against women and widespread corruption.
The country's problems have intensified since a recent presidential election that was widely viewed as fraudulent.
The administration's decision "is a cruel and completely unnecessary attempt to destroy the lives of immigrants and their American children," said Jaime Contreras, Vice President of 32BJ SEIU, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.
The affiliate said it represents 18,000 property service workers in the Washington-Maryland. region "who are overwhelmingly immigrants from Central and South America."
Tthe government of Honduras, unlike other countries that have lost TPS status, enjoys good relations with the Trump administration. Honduras and Guatemala were among a small handful of countries that voted with the United States against a United Nations resolution to condemn Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Some Honduran officials had hoped those votes would curry favor with Trump and help win another renewal of the temporary protections.
Honduran Deputy Foreign Minister Jose Isaias Barahona said this week that ending the TPS program for Honduras would hurt the economies of both countries. He noted that many Hondurans in the United States send millions of dollars home, but also pay U.S. taxes.