MIAMI (AP) - Immigrants who have legally lived and worked in the U.S. since disasters in their countries years ago may have to start thinking about going home, the U.S. Homeland Security chief said Thursday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Secretary John Kelly sent strong signals that immigration benefits known as "temporary protected status" should not be as open-ended as they have become for tens of thousands of people from Haiti and Central America.
"The point is not that there be a complete recovery of all ills in the country," Kelly said. "The point is, whatever the event is that caused TPS to be granted - that event is over, and they can return."
That might shock 86,000 immigrants from Honduras and another 263,000 from El Salvador, who constitute the vast majority of the program's current beneficiaries.
The Hondurans, along with more than 5,000 immigrants from Nicaragua, became eligible for the temporary protections in 1999 because of destruction from Hurricane Mitch a year earlier. Immigrants from El Salvador were included in 2001 after a series of earthquakes.
Immigrants from those three countries make up 80 percent of the 435,000 people from 10 nations currently eligible. Their status has been renewed every 18 months, and it will be up for renewal again early next year.
Kelly spoke with AP in Miami a day after meeting with Haiti's president to discuss the return of roughly 50,000 Haitians to the long-troubled Caribbean country. He joined Florida Gov. Rick Scott at the National Hurricane Center to mark the start of hurricane season Thursday.
Kelly said he has not yet discussed ending temporary status with the Central American countries' leaders. However, he emphasized that those privileges were intended to be temporary, even though they have not been administered that way.
"People in my position automatically - without thinking about it very much, apparently - just simply extended it," Kelly said. "They weren't taking the same approach to the law as I am."
Kelly recently extended Haiti's temporary status, granted after a January 2010 earthquake, only through January 2018. Officials said Kelly would re-evaluate conditions in Haiti before deciding to terminate or continue extending those benefits, but they also said Haitians should get their affairs in order and prepare to go home.
Haitian President Jovenel Moise asked for a yearlong extension, Kelly said Thursday. Advocates for Haitians have asked for even longer, saying conditions in Haiti pose grave risks to Haitians returning home.
Kelly said he explained to Moise that immigrants from three West African countries lost protected status last month, despite hardships in that region, because the Ebola outbreak that triggered the designation is no longer a threat.
"The countries had terrible unemployment, terrible economic conditions before Ebola," Kelly said. "Now they are going back because Ebola is over, but the conditions in the country are the same."
Temporary protected status can be granted when a country is devastated by war or natural disasters.
Internal government emails obtained by AP show that an official at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asked for criminal statistics and other information about Haitian immigrants. The Homeland Security Department denied that criminal information would be a consideration in the decision about Haiti's status.
Kelly said Florida lawmakers had called him to say Haitians living here were "decent, law-abiding residents" who needed a six-month extension to sell their homes and businesses and consult attorneys about potential options to change their status.