The Trump administration has decided to continue protecting Haitians living in the US since the 2010 earthquake from deportation for another six months after the expiration of the program became controversial.
The decision, made by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, was announced Monday and will be followed up by an official notice in the Federal Register, which will start the clock for recipients to apply for their six-month extension.
Senior DHS officials said in a call with reporters that the decision was made after the secretary determined that conditions in Haiti were improving since the earthquake seven years ago -- and that at the end of six months, the program could be terminated instead of extended again.
"After looking at the conditions in Haiti and determining that at this point, legally, under the statute, the secretary could still determine that those conditions warranted an extension of the protection, he decided to do so," said a senior DHS official who declined to be quoted by name.
While the DHS officials repeatedly made clear they were making the decision based on the criteria set forth in the legislation creating the temporary protected status (TPS), they strongly urged that recipients from Haiti take the next six months to prepare for the potential expiration in January.
"During the next six months, the secretary is encouraging all TPS recipients to handle their affairs accordingly," the official said.
The program had been set to expire in July.
Temporary protected status is a DHS designation for various countries on matters like natural disasters and civil war. Once designated, individuals from those countries living in the US are protected from detention and deportation based on their immigration status and are able to apply for work authorizations.
Other countries under TPS include Sudan, Syria and some Central American countries. Recipients must have been living in the US since the designation, so newcomers are not eligible.
The expiration of Haiti's TPS became controversial not only because the administration came under heavy pressure from humanitarian groups to continue the program but also because emails sent by a Trump administration staffer, published by The Associated Press, showed the official seeking information on how many in the Haitian TPS community had committed crimes or received social welfare benefits.
TPS recipients are ineligible for federal benefits.
When the emails became public, DHS officials said Kelly was merely seeking information that the department should have, and on Monday's call, DHS officials said the information that was able to be gleaned was not a factor in the decision to extend status.
"Common sense questions like how many folks have been convicted of a crime, how many are employed, how many are in school, all those kinds of things are things the US government have not reported on or collected in a comprehensive fashion previously that are important to the secretary to ensure that he can answer to the Congress and to the American people that every program he is responsible for administering is administered to the benefit of the national interest," the official said.
He added the information was not designed to "denigrate" any population.
DHS said the full explanation for the secretary's rationale would be laid out in the Federal Register notice, but said that factors included improvements in situations like the government rebuilding the presidential palace and the United Nations leaving the country "as being indicative of a stable government that is capable of governing its citizenry."
The officials repeatedly made clear that they could only consider factors related to the earthquake -- and said overall persistent poverty in the country before and after the earthquake cannot be taken into account.
"The secretary has received commitments and statements from the Haitian government that they actually do in fact want their TPS recipients living in the United States to return to Haiti to help rebuild their country," the official said.
"They're precisely the type of people who have an entrepreneurial spirit, job skills, at this point even perhaps some additional English language skills that would really help facilitate the development of Haiti, its economy and help provide jobs and additional vital services that are needed to help bring Haiti to the next level."
There are nearly 59,000 recipients of TPS from Haiti living in the US, the officials said. Some may be eligible for other immigration statuses.