Diplomats’ Warnings Over Mass Deportations Ignored by Trump Administration

A memo details the Trump administration’s efforts to end waivers for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Central American nationals and send them home.


The Trump administration sought to deport hundreds of thousands of Central American nationals allowed into the United States under a decades-old humanitarian program, despite warnings from U.S. diplomats on the ground and senior State Department officials in Washington that it would destabilize the region and undermine U.S. national security interests, according to internal U.S. government documents released by a Democratic lawmaker this week. The State Department’s Policy Planning Staff also recommended finalizing the deportations by late 2019, to avoid the controversial policy playing out in the midst of the 2020 U.S. presidential race.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pressed for the deportation of nearly 400,000 Salvadoran, Honduran, and Haitian nationals who were permitted to temporarily reside and work in the United States under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which was established to provide a humanitarian lifeline to vulnerable individuals from countries struck by natural disasters or conflict. The program, established in 1990, is supposed to provide temporary relief, but the protections have been repeatedly extended because conditions for a safe return have become increasingly elusive. For now, the beneficiaries of TPS have received a court-ordered reprieve, and DHS has agreed to postpone deportations through 2021 to adhere to court injunctions.

The push to deport prompted fierce internal backlash as career State Department staffers warned that the action could have dire consequences: potentially risking the safety of more than 270,000 American children of TPS beneficiaries, exacerbating political and economic instability in their countries of origin as tens of thousands were forced to repatriate, and undermining U.S. programs designed to combat drug traffickers, stem migration, and battle the region’s criminal gangs.

Tom Shannon, at the time the top-ranking career diplomat in the department, wrote a formal dissent cable to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over the decision. In a 2018 interview with Foreign Policy, Shannon said 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 declined to go into further detail.

As part of our Document of the Week series, we are featuring an action memo that details the internal divisions within the State Department over the wisdom of mass deportation. The document—designated sensitive but unclassified—is one of many internal memos released in a 146-page minority staff report, titled Playing Politics With Humanitarian Protections: How Political Aims Trumped U.S. National Security and the Safety of TPS Recipients, by Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Senior officials at all levels of the State Department, including the U.S. embassies in the three countries, repeatedly warned the Trump administration of the dire consequences that would result from the decisions to end TPS for El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti,” Menendez wrote in an introduction to the report. “Senior State Department officials alerted the Trump administration that terminating the three TPS designations would have negative consequences for U.S. national security and would likely prompt increased irregular migration in the region.”

The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, or PRM, put up the strongest resistance, warning that El Salvador and Honduras “remain unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return of their nationals. As for Haiti, extraordinary and temporary conditions continue to prevent Haitians from returning in safety.”

PRM “does not believe there have been significant improvements in relevant country conditions since recent past extensions of TPS,” the memo added. “In addition, PRM believes that the return [of] over hundreds of thousands of people would destabilize the region, causing significant harm to U.S. foreign policy and national security interests.”

The State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs concurred with PRM’s assessment of the threat posed to U.S. national security interests but argued that conditions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti no longer justified continuation of the program.

The Policy Planning Staff took the hardest line, arguing that the practice of prior Democratic and Republican administrations to routinely extend the deadline for TPS recipients’ return “violated the spirit and strict legal requirements of the statute, putting this administration in a very difficult position.” The bureau proposed that the programs be ended in El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti but to avoid allowing that action to extend into the 2020 election cycle.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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

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