How One Top Diplomat Took a Stand Against Trump’s Immigration Policy

The under secretary of state feared that canceling the temporary protected status for some immigrants would be a blight on U.S. foreign policy.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Demonstrators gathered in front of the White House to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to terminate temporary protected status for citizens of Sudan, El Salvador, Haiti, and Nicaragua in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 9. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators gathered in front of the White House to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to terminate temporary protected status for citizens of Sudan, El Salvador, Haiti, and Nicaragua in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 9. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Tom Shannon, who was the State Department’s highest-ranking career diplomat until he retired in June, waged a quiet bureaucratic protest last year in an attempt to prevent the Trump administration from canceling a humanitarian program that affects hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

Shannon, who is widely respected in diplomatic circles though his name is not well-known outside Washington, added a personal note of dissent to a State Department memo sent to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. His action spotlighted a relatively obscure but important feature of diplomacy in the United States: a formal dissent process that allows State Department employees to file objections directly to the secretary without fear of retribution.

Shannon’s appeals went unheeded; last May, the administration announced it would revoke the temporary protection status for Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Haitian, and Sudanese citizens, some of whom have lived in the United States for decades. The decisions potentially open more than 300,000 people to deportation.

But his story, which he shared with Foreign Policy, is an example of how some civil servants have tried to push back against Trump administration policies viewed as excessive or inhumane.

“One of my purposes was to ensure that the shame did not fall on the Foreign Service or the State Department,” said Shannon, who has largely avoided the limelight since leaving government. “[It’s] bad in terms of its human consequences, because it will lead to the largest forced removal of people in our history. But also, bad in terms of our foreign policy because it called into question our reliability as a partner with [these] countries … that are now part of a larger migration crisis.”

The temporary protection status, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990, allows citizens of countries hit by natural disasters or war who were already in the United States to stay and work legally until it is safe for them to return to their home country.

But the Trump administration argued that the designation was only temporary and that the disasters invoked by the applicants in each country—in the case of Salvadorans, devastating earthquakes in 2001—are no longer relevant.

The Department of Homeland Security has final say on the temporary protected status programs, but it consulted with the State Department on the possible foreign-policy implications before the administration announced its decision to revoke it.

Shannon told FP that various bureaus and embassies worked together to produce a memo on the issue for Tillerson. He said certain people tried to influence the content of the memo unfairly. “There was an effort made to politicize this process and to determine what got to the Secretary not based on the best thinking of our embassies and the Department, but on what we thought, in this instance, the White House wanted,” he said. He declined to go into detail.

The State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and its Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration both contributed to the memo, along with U.S. embassies in the relevant countries. Shannon attached a personal note opposing the decision. But he said killing off the program was a forgone conclusion. “The decision had been made elsewhere. They were just trying to put into place the bureaucratic pieces.”

Tillerson recommended to the president that the United States put an end to temporary protected status, which both Republican and Democratic administrations had extended to these countries for decades.

“Even when we disagree, when the president and the secretary make decisions … that’s the policy, so we execute it,” Shannon said. But this decision felt particularly hard to accept. “I just really thought that removing temporary protective status rose to a level of meanness and cruelty which was unworthy of the United States.”

In response, a State Department spokesperson said: “The Department of State considered all relevant input in developing its recommendation to the Department of Homeland Security. ‎ We do not comment on internal deliberations.”

The decision is now ensnared in legal battles: A federal judge last month blocked the administration’s directive, saying Trump “harbors an animus against non-white, non-European aliens” and the government failed to show how continuing the program would cause harm.

Last month, the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats, honored Shannon for taking a stand on the issue, alongside other career State Department employees. He was introduced at the event by David Hale, Shannon’s successor and current under secretary of state for political affairs. “He demonstrated how dissent can and should be expressed,” Hale said. In an address to current and former diplomats at the event, Shannon said the decision to cancel the temporary protection status had “upended a bipartisan commitment of support and solidarity to people who had suffered great loss” and “will have a painful human cost.”

The association gives annual awards to State Department employees for what it calls “constructive dissent”—a practice in the State Department where any official regardless of rank can voice opposition to a U.S. policy without fear of reprisal through a dissent channel that goes directly to the top ranks of the department.

The State Department launched the dissent channel in 1971 in response to criticism that the department offered no avenues for diplomats to oppose the Vietnam War. One of the most famous dissent cables was sent by the U.S. consul general in East Pakistan, Archer Blood, and 20 other U.S. officials, to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1971 protesting U.S. silence on atrocities committed in Bangladesh’s liberation war. The Blood Telegram derailed his career.

Other U.S. diplomats have used the channel to criticize U.S. inaction on the Bosnian War in 1992 and oppose the 2003 Iraq War. In June 2016, 51 diplomats filed a dissent cable protesting the Obama administration’s approach to the war in Syria.

Just a few weeks into Trump’s term in office, some 1,000 State Department officials signed a dissent cable protesting his executive order banning travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. The cable leaked to the press, causing anger in the White House and sowing tension between the Trump administration and career diplomats.

“These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters at the time. “They should either get with the program or they can go.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer