The Salvadoran immigrants Rosa Romero, Mirna Portillo, and Aminta Romero prepare to exit after a news conference at the New York Immigration Coalition following President Donald Trump's announcement to end the temporary protected status for Salvadoran immigrants.Andrew Kelly / Reuters

The travel ban. The termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. A funding cutoff for “sanctuary cities.” Time and time again, the federal courts have prevented the Trump administration from pushing through measures that radically overhaul the nation’s immigration protocols.  

And so it happened again late Wednesday, with about 300,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan threatened with expulsion after living for years legally in the United States, when a federal judge in California ruled that Donald Trump’s bureaucrats had acted out of racial “animus” in ending what’s known as temporary protected status (TPS).

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen raised concerns over the administration’s motives in ending the federal immigration program that allows immigrants whose country has been struck by extraordinary events to work and live legally in the United States.

“Plaintiffs have also raised serious questions whether the actions taken by the Acting Secretary or Secretary was influenced by the White House and based on animus against non-white, non-European immigrants in violation of Equal Protection guaranteed by the Constitution,” Chen wrote, adding, “The issues are at least serious enough to preserve the status quo.”

The judge’s decision is yet another setback for the administration, which has sought to severely narrow the number of immigrants permitted in the country and discourage illegal immigration. (The Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban in June.) But particularly in the case of TPS, it takes a swipe at a system that stems from humanitarian concern.

Congress created TPS in 1990 to address people displaced by natural disasters, armed conflicts, or other events. Once the Department of Homeland Security designates a country for TPS, its nationals who are already in the U.S. are provided temporary protection, thereby allowing them to live and work legally in the country. The Department of Homeland Security is supposed to review designations to evaluate whether a country has recovered. Oftentimes, however, protections extend for decades, which has been a common complaint among immigration restrictionists. Honduras, for example, still has TPS, about 20 years after a hurricane hit the country.

The Trump administration has taken the stance that the program should be treated, as its name suggests, as temporary. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen terminated TPS for El Salvador—which was struck by a major earthquake in 2001—in January after finding that “the substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake no longer exist.” The department similarly argued that conditions had improved in Haiti, Sudan, and Nicaragua. The expiration dates are staggered, but the group slated to lose protections first was TPS holders from Sudan, on November 2.  

This American Life, a weekly radio program, shed light on tensions within the administration between staffers and Trump appointees to come to a decision on TPS designations. According to emails released as part of a lawsuit, staffers warned that TPS for countries such as Haiti and Sudan should not be terminated, because they had not fully recovered. And yet, after much back-and-forth, higher-ups in the administration decided to end it anyway.

Plaintiffs in Ramos v. Nielsen argued that the administration’s decision to terminate TPS was “unlawful.” In a 43-page decision, Chen, an appointee of President Barack Obama, wrote that the administration departed from prior administration practice by not taking into account other country conditions.

But beyond the fight over process, Chen notes that ultimately there’s no immediate harm to the federal government if the decision to terminate TPS is temporarily halted. TPS beneficiaries, on the other hand, would have their life upended. The order states:

TPS beneficiaries thus risk being uprooted from their homes, jobs, careers, and communities. They face removal to countries to which their children and family members may have little or no ties and which may not be safe. Those with U.S.-citizen children will be confronted with the dilemma of either bringing their children with them, giving up their children’s lives in the United States (for many, the only lives they know), or being separated from their children.

Chen also cited a brief filed by some states that highlights the contributions of TPS holders: If TPS holders lose status, it’ll cost them $132.6 billion in GDP, $5.2 billion in Social Security and Medicare contributions, and $733 million in employers’ turnover costs.

In a statement, the Department of Justice spokesman Devin O’Malley said the ruling “usurps the role of the executive branch in our constitutional order.” He added: “The Justice Department completely rejects the notion that the White House or the Department of Homeland Security did anything improper. We will continue to fight for the integrity of our immigration laws and our national security.”

The preliminary injunction does not mark the end of the dispute. Indeed, the next hearing is scheduled for October 26, but it addresses the consequences of the administration’s actions as they relate to restricting the number of immigrants in the U.S. Trump’s move to end TPS for the four countries in question, advocates argue, demonstrates a disregard for living conditions and, in doing so, dismisses the humanitarian aspect of the program.

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