Is this a good week to offer heterodox opinions about immigration policy at the White House? Not really, but that’s not what John Kelly did in his interview with NPR, in which he insisted that he and Donald Trump are “in lockstep” on most policies. When asked about DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s controversial decision to end Temporary Protected Status for over 250,000 refugees that had been here for almost 20 years, Kelly said that they should be given a path to citizenship rather than expelled.
And isn’t it clever of Nielsen to give Congress that opportunity to act?
I think we should fold all of the TPS people that have been here for a considerable period of time and find a way for them to be on a path to citizenship. … Take the Central Americans that have been here 20-plus years. … By doing what she’s done, Secretary Nielsen once again is forcing the United States Congress to do something. I mean, I can’t tell you the number of times in my hearings when they would ask me about why we’re doing this, so what is your philosophy on immigration or whatever. I just said, “Look, you make the laws. I execute the laws.” I can’t pick and choose what laws to enforce. I would be, I should be thrown out of the job if I do that.
The order impacts 195,000 refugees from El Salvador and 57,000 from Honduras, assigned TPS status since December 1998. As I wrote in my column on Tuesday at The Week, these people have settled in the US legally, working under permits and creating businesses, raising families and having children, and investing in their communities while successive administrations kept renewing their “temporary” status. The program clearly needs reforms, but Nielsen’s order in effect turns legal residents into illegal immigrants without any special recognition of their lives here in the US:
Critics of the law raise a good point when scoffing at the use of “temporary” status to effectively provide permanent emigration. Decisions to provide safe haven and work permits on longer-term bases should require more prudence and more certainty. The law’s initial proviso for an 18-month safe-haven status should be enough to determine whether conditions require a longer-term approach, and therefore to provide support for transitioning out of temporary status to a formal immigration process. Unfortunately, Congress has allowed succeeding administrations to shirk fixing this problem in the system responsibly.
But here’s the key point: None of this offers any justification for the administration’s appalling decision to threaten to kick out so many people after some 20 years of legal residency here. …
We should absolutely fix the broken TPS system. But there must be a better transitional process than just giving 18 months’ notice to its expiration. Given that we helped create this issue, shouldn’t we provide for a fast-track system for those in TPS beyond a certain number of years? That seems especially true for those who have demonstrated a commitment to America in both assimilation and industry.
The U.S. has needed to start taking border and visa security more seriously for decades. President Trump won the 2016 election in large part by acknowledging that Americans want tougher enforcement of the law. When we have addressed those issues, we will still have a lot of tough decisions ahead when it comes to those who crossed our borders illegally or overstayed visas. Do we really need to add to them by turning law-abiding residents into illegal immigrants?
It’s good to hear that Kelly agrees on this point. However, it raises the question as to why the White House and Nielsen didn’t push Congress harder to work on the TPS issue before summarily ending the program. It’s true that this is Congress’ responsibility, and perhaps true that they would need a hard shove to get started on the program. In the meantime, though, Nielsen has destabilized the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who same and stayed through legal means, without any hint of a plan to take that past into any consideration.
Now that Kelly’s made it clear he favors an accelerated approach to at least normalization of status for long-term legal TPS residents, perhaps Nielsen Trump can put out a proposal to get one in place. Congress can act on such a proposal just as easily as one created by their own members, after all.