By Ted Hesson and Laura Gottesdiener
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The incoming Biden administration is considering a plan to shield more than a million immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala from deportation after the countries were battered by hurricanes in November, three people familiar with the matter told Reuters.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's transition team is weighing whether to grant them Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The program allows people already in the United States at the time of the designation to stay and work legally if their home countries have been affected by natural disasters, armed conflicts or other events that prevent their safe return. The designations last six to 18 months and can be renewed.
TPS covers both immigrants in the United States illegally and those on legal visas. The program bars certain applicants with criminal convictions and those deemed security threats.
The sources stressed that no decisions were expected until after Biden takes office on Jan. 20 and staff are in place to conduct formal evaluations.
"They’re looking into TPS the same way they’re looking into a number of things to decide on the right course of action," said one of the people, all of whom requested anonymity. "Circumstances on the ground certainly warrant that."
A transition team spokesman declined to comment.
If Biden's Democratic administration does grant TPS to Hondurans and Guatemalans, it would represent a major expansion of the program and the biggest use of that authority in decades.
The discussion of the TPS humanitarian protections represents a sharp departure from the administration of Republican President Donald Trump.
Trump attempted to phase out most enrollment in the TPS program, arguing the countries had recovered from natural disasters that happened years or decades ago, but the terminations were slowed by federal courts and the protections will remain in place at least until October 2021.
Biden’s campaign website called Trump attempts to roll back TPS "politically motivated" and Biden has said he would not return enrollees to unsafe countries.
If the Biden administration ultimately offers new TPS protections to Hondurans and Guatemalans, it could enthuse liberal Democrats but would risk criticism from Republicans who back Trump's tougher approach to immigration, making it more difficult for Biden to pass the immigration bill he plans to introduce at the start of his term.
U.S. border officials are also concerned about the effects of a major surge in migration in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The situation could be exacerbated by talk of new TPS designations, said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union for Border Patrol agents.
The two hurricanes that powered through Central America in November, named Eta and Iota, killed more than 100 people in Honduras and forced more than 300,000 to be evacuated from their homes, with more than 125,000 still displaced in shelters, according to the Honduran government.
In Guatemala, the storms killed dozens of people, destroyed roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, and inundated swaths of farmland while it already had a growing hunger crisis.
More than a quarter of a million families in Guatemala have been affected by the agricultural destruction, according to the agricultural ministry. The World Food Programme warns the damage will create a high risk of food insecurity for subsistence farmers and their families throughout the next 10 months, until the next harvest occurs.
The governments of both Honduras and Guatemala have called on the United States to issue new TPS designations for their nationals in the United States.
A group of four Democratic senators from the states of Virginia and Maryland sent a letter on Friday to Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden's nominee to become homeland security secretary, urging Mayorkas to "promptly" issue new TPS designations for Honduras and Guatemala, as well as for El Salvador and Nicaragua.
In Texas, 42-year-old Margarita Rivera, a Honduran immigrant living in the United States illegally and working at a cake shop, said flooding was so devastating in her hometown along the northern coast that many of her neighbors lost their homes and had to be rescued by boat.
"I would love if TPS were approved," she said, explaining that it would be extremely difficult for her to survive and make ends meet in Honduras if she were deported.
Roughly 411,000 people of different nationalities have TPS protections, according to a 2019 report by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Some 79,000 Hondurans are already enrolled in the program under a 1999 designation issued by Democratic President Bill Clinton's administration following hurricane damage. However, to be eligible, Hondurans must have been residing in the United States on or before Dec. 30, 1998.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Mexico; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles; Editing by Ross Colvin and Grant McCool)