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Report: WH ignored warnings from State Department officials about ending immigrant protections

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In late October of 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson received a memo from Trump appointees on his staff regarding the administration’s intention to terminate Temporary Protected Status to immigrants from Honduras, El Savador and Haiti, among other countries.

The memo acknowledged that career State Department diplomats, including then-Under Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon Jr., had issued explicit warnings that ending TPS for those three countries would pose serious risks to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. It also noted concerns that ending designation could also endanger the safety of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who would be forced to return to those countries, not to mention their U.S. citizen children.

Despite those concerns, the political appointees in the State Department urged Tillerson to accelerate the termination of protections afforded immigrants with TPS status. Although senior officials at State had already concluded that TPS status should not be ended quickly, those officials handpicked by Trump believed that the suggested 36-month timeline was too slow because it “would put the wind-down of the program directly in the middle of the 2020 election cycle.”

Robert Menendez
Sen. Robert Menendez. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

That memo is among dozens of internal State Department documents included in a new report published Thursday by the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The report is the product of an investigation commissioned by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking Democrat on the committee, into the State Department’s role in the Trump administration’s decision to end TPS for Honduras, El Savador and Haiti. It concludes that the White House not only disregarded repeated and explicit warnings against ending TPS from career diplomats, but suggests that the decision to do so may have been influenced by what the report calls “electoral calculations.”

“Today’s report documents something we’ve become all too familiar with: the administration seeking to use foreign policy not to further U.S. interests but the president’s political aims,” Menendez said at a Thursday press briefing. “Political appointees literally advocated for the accelerated termination of TPS … so it wouldn't be an electoral liability,”

Immigration advocates and allies
Immigration advocates and allies gathered in New York City last month to launch an 18-day march to Washington. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In November 2017, President Trump first announced plans to end Temporary Protected Status — a designation allowing citizens of certain countries destabilized by armed conflict or natural disasters to live and work in the U.S. — for a number of countries, including El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti. The move, which is the subject of multiple legal challenges and has so far been blocked by courts from taking effect, would have an impact on approximately 400,000 TPS recipients living in the United States as well as their estimated 273,000 American-born children who would either have to return with their parents or remain in the U.S. alone.

Among the dozens of State Department documents obtained through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s investigation are diplomatic cables sent by U.S. embassies in those three countries to senior officials at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security during the summer of 2017. The cables urge that the TPS designations should be renewed, and warn that a failure to do so could destabilize the region and result in a new wave of illegal migration to the U.S.

One cable, for example, sent by the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador on July 7, 2017, warned that “the lack of legitimate employment opportunities” in El Salvador would make repatriated TPS recipients, or their children, subject to recruitment by gangs like MS-13, which would likely be emboldened as a result.

“Make no mistake, the administration knew exactly what it was doing, consequences be damned,” said Menendez.

Liane Taracena, left, and her mother Juana Villanueva.
Liane Taracena, left, is embraced by her mother Juana Villanueva, while speaking at a press conference about DACA at the Capitol. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

News reports about the cables — and the Trump administration’s decision to disregard them — first came to light last year. But the newly released documents show how then-Under Secretary Shannon, the State Department’s highest-ranking career diplomat, made a private appeal to Tillerson, in which he emphasized that the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti could not handle the quick return of the hundreds of thousands of nationals currently covered by TPS.

“It is our purpose to provide the best possible foreign policy and diplomatic advice,” Shannon wrote. “From my point of view that advice is obvious: extend TPS for the countries indicated.”

Shannon’s guidance echoed that of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, as well as the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and the secretary’s own Office of Policy Planning, all of which recommended that TPS should be terminated only for those countries after a period of 36 months.

The copy of the memo included in the report from political appointees at the State Department shows that Tillerson crossed out a reference to the department’s recommended 36 month extension for those three countries, and wrote by hand that the TPS designations should end in 18 months — which is what he ultimately wrote in his final recommendation to the Department of Homeland Security secretary.

This memo offers “strong evidence that the decision was influenced by personal and political considerations of the Trump campaign,” said Tom Jawetz, Vice President for Immigration Policy at Center for American Progress. Jawetz was among those on a panel of experts who spoke about the implications of the report at Thursday’s press conference. He emphasized that the law requires that once a country has been designated for TPS, it must be extended until DHS has made a fact-based determination that the country no longer meets the conditions necessary to warrant that designation.

He argued that the apparent political factors behind Tillerson’s final recommendation should be particularly relevant to the ongoing litigation over the legality of the administration’s decision to end TPS currently being considered by federal courts.

Menendez said he planned to share the report with his Republican colleagues on the committee, who have the power to convene hearings, as well as with the State Department inspector general.

“We do not comment on internal deliberations. We are aware that a report was released, but have nothing to add at this time,” a State Department spokesperson told Yahoo News via email.


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