Haitian and Salvadoran immigrants sued President Donald Trump on Thursday, arguing that the Republican administration's decision to end special protections shielding them from deportation was racially motivated.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Boston seeks to block the administration from terminating temporary protective status for thousands of immigrants from Haiti and El Salvador. It claims Trump's move to rescind the program was rooted in animus against immigrants of color, citing comments made by Trump on the campaign trial and in office.
"Many of the plaintiffs have lived in the United States for decades," said Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a Massachusetts-based Latin American immigrant organization that's also a plaintiff in the case. "If TPS is terminated, they are at risk of losing everything - the homes and the businesses they have built, the families they have raised and the money they have invested into their communities," she said in a statement.
Temporary legal status provides temporary safe havens for people from countries experiencing armed conflicts, natural disasters and other challenges.
In January, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said it was ending special protections for Salvadoran immigrants, giving them until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the U.S. or face deportation. Months earlier, the administration ended the protection for Haitians, requiring them to leave or adjust their legal status by July 22, 2019, and for Nicaraguans, giving them until Jan. 5, 2019. A decision is expected later this year for Honduran immigrants.
The Department of Homeland Security said that conditions in Haiti have improved significantly since the 2010 earthquake and the country is now able to "safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens."
The Obama administration had extended protections for Salvadorans in 2016, saying the country was still suffering the lingering effects of earthquakes in 2001 that killed more than 1,000 people. The Trump administration said last month that the country has received significant international aid to recover from the earthquake, and homes, schools and hospitals there have been rebuilt.
The lawsuit calls the administration's stated reasons for ending the protections "nothing but a thin pretextual smoke screen for a racially discriminatory immigration agenda."
The complaint was filed by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice on behalf of eight immigrants enrolled in the program, including a Salvadoran restaurant owner in Massachusetts and a 19-year-old Haitian immigrant living and attending community college in Boston.
It points to reports that Trump questioned why the U.S. would want to admit more people from Haiti, used a vulgarity to describe countries in Africa and said he would like to see more immigrants from countries like Norway. It also cites separate reports that Trump said Haitians who received visas to enter the U.S. last year "all have AIDS" and comments he made about immigration during the campaign, including that Mexican immigrants were "bringing crime" and were "rapists."
The NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a similar lawsuit in Maryland last month challenging the termination of the protections for Haitian immigrants.