Bertha Sandles reacts as she tells her family story during a press conference at El Arepazo in Doral, Florida, called by the AFSC, FLIC and the Venezuelan American Caucus, as the Nicaraguan and Venezuelan communities continue asking the president to use his executive power to protect more than 700,000 families in Florida. on  Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023.

Bertha Sandles reacts as she tells her family story during a press conference at El Arepazo in Doral, Florida, called by the AFSC, FLIC and the Venezuelan American Caucus, as the Nicaraguan and Venezuelan communities continue asking the president to use his executive power to protect more than 700,000 families in Florida. on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Biden administration has no plans to expand Temporary Protected Status for Nicaragua, despite ongoing political, economic, and social crises that have driven hundreds of thousands of people out of the Central American nation in recent years, the chief of the Department of Homeland Security said.

“We do not have any intention right now to re-designate Nicaragua for Temporary Protected Status. That is not to say that we do not continuously review the country conditions, and whatever country is a focus of study by reason of the conditions there. So that is something that is always ongoing,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told McClatchy on Monday.

There were 4,250 beneficiaries of TPS from Nicaragua in the U.S. in 2021, according to government statistics. Nicaragua was first designated for Temporary Protected Status on Jan. 5, 1999, a few months after Hurricane Mitch killed more than 11,000 people and devastated several countries in the region. Currently, eligible beneficiaries must have had a continuous physical presence in the United States since then, meaning that people who came after that date do not qualify for TPS.

Changing Nicaragua’s cut off date to a more recent one for Temporary Protected Status — which allows people from countries in turmoil who are already in the U.S. to temporarily live and work in the country and shields them from deportation — could benefit tens of thousands of Nicaraguans already in the United States who have come since the original designation. One internal government estimate, obtained by CBS News this summer, puts the number at almost 400,000 Nicaraguans who could be eligible under one proposal.

In June, Homeland Security canceled a Trump-era termination of TPS for Nicaragua and extended the country’s TPS designation until July 2025. Earlier this month, the agency also announced an 18-month extension of the re-registration period for beneficiaries from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and two other countries. Re-registration gives people more time to submit the necessary documents to maintain their TPS status and work permits.

But South Florida activists, including the Florida Immigration Coalition and the American Friends Service Committee, want an expansion of the program altogether. They have led a full blast, year-long plus campaign asking Mayorkas and Homeland Security to redesignate Nicaragua for TPS. They argue that other countries have received redesignations in the past two decades and that the conditions in Nicaragua have deteriorated and continue worsening, making it unsafe for people to return.

Thirty-seven percent of all Nicaraguans in the U.S. live in Florida, the highest concentration of any state, according to the Pew Research Center. The Census Bureau reported that in 2021 more than 107,000 Nicaraguans, both U.S.- and foreign-born, lived in Miami-Dade County. About 26,000 are not U.S. citizens.

“As a Nicaraguan, I feel deeply disappointed to see that for this administration, the situation that my country is going through is not enough. If the existing TPS was extended it is because this administration recognizes that there is a problem,” said Bertha Sanles, a Nicaragua-born community organizer for the American Friends Service Committee in South Florida.

Over the past 18 months, South Florida groups have sent postcards to Mayorkas, written letters with hundreds of signatures from civil rights, faith leaders and immigration groups, and held several press conferences and roundtable discussions. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and U.S. Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick are among the South Florida officials who have also backed TPS for Nicaragua through conferences, letters to DHS and Mayorkas, and statements on social media.

Sanles, who came to the U.S. the year after the original designation, is one of the undocumented Nicaraguans who could benefit from a TPS expansion. She has raised two daughters, worked in the U.S. and paid taxes for the past 23 years. If she became a TPS beneficiary, her daughter, a U.S. citizen, would then be able to apply for a green card on her behalf so she could adjust her immigration status, she said.

“By not redesignating TPS, Biden’s legacy will be thousands of more undocumented people,” she said.

Nicaragua has undergone several crises in the past few years. Since 2018, President Daniel Ortega has led a repressive crackdown that has led to the the stripping of citizenship from political opponents, the harassment of journalists and independent media, the confiscation of a prestigious Jesuit university in the capital city of Managua, and the jailing of hundreds of opposition leaders, including a Catholic bishop.

In addition, two major hurricanes slammed into the country in late 2020, damaging a region in the northeast where many native Miskito people live. Cycles of intense drought and heavy rainfalls have also disrupted agriculture in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America, disrupting livelihoods and food supplies.

More than 260,000 Nicaraguans have left their country as of June 2022, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which cited “the continuously deteriorating political and security situation coupled with ongoing state repression” as the reason. Many have gone to Costa Rica, Mexico, the United States, Panama, Guatemala and Spain, the U.N said.

The U.S. has also seen a sharp rise in encounters with Nicaraguans at the U.S.-Mexico border. Customs and Border Protection documented 163,876 encounters in fiscal 2022, up from 50,109 the previous year. Since October of last year, the federal government had documented more than 97,000 encounters with Nicaraguans.

Yareliz Mendez Zamora, federal head of the Florida Immigrant Coalition and the daughter of Nicaraguan immigrants, who has been leading the South Florida campaign, told the Herald that it was “disturbing” that the Biden administration is not moving to redesignate TPS for Nicaragua. She described Mayorkas’ statement as “empty words” and “a filler answer.”

“They are playing political games with our lives, just like the Republicans.” she said, even though, she added, “Biden had come to Florida and begged for the immigrant vote.”

Though she is a U.S. citizen by birth, both her parents have been previously undocumented, she said.

“I understand how lucky my parents are to have papers, but there’s people whose kids are in panic mode,” Mendez said. ”Because even though my parents have papers, I have cousins who don’t. And they are panicking and I don’t know what to tell them when they come over for dinner on Sundays, and they are like, ‘Yareliz, do you have any news for me?’”

©2023 Miami Herald.

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