Washington (CNN) – Cassandra has lived and worked in the US over 20 years. Threats to her life have been made to her family and friends back in Nicaragua. It would be “suicide” to move back, she says.
But the Trump administration says she and thousands of other immigrants like her must do so by January.
On Jan. 5, roughly 5,300 Nicaraguans who have lived in the US since at least that date in 1999 will lose their protected status. If they have no other immigration status in the US, they will be forced to either return to the country or risk living in the US illegally.
The decision to end temporary protected status for Nicaraguans last November was overshadowed by similar Trump administration decisions to end such protections for hundreds of thousands more immigrants from neighbors Honduras and El Salvador. Nationals of Nicaragua received the shortest time frame of any of those TPS recipients to get their affairs together: 12 months.
But since that decision was made, Nicaragua has plunged into violence and political unrest, with at least 322 people dying there since mid-April, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States. By the White House’s own count, the toll is more than 350. The UN Refugee Agency has put out guidance to its member countries asking them to allow Nicaraguans to enter and to apply for asylum once there.
The situation is bad enough that the Trump administration sanctioned three Nicaraguan officials in July for human rights abuses, saying President Daniel Ortega and his vice president “are ultimately responsible for the pro-government parapolice that have brutalized their own people.”
In light of the violence, a bipartisan group of seven bipartisan lawmakers wrote to President Donald Trump, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in late July asking the President to either reconsider ending temporary protected status for Nicaraguans or to designate a new status for them.
“It would be, frankly, I think, unacceptable to then send folks back to that same place that we’re sanctioning,” Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, one of those who signed the letter, told CNN. “It’s a barbaric regime that’s literally murdering people in the streets. … It would be a catastrophe, and it’s one that can be avoided.”
Diaz-Balart said he has not gotten a response from the administration to the letter, though he remains hopeful it will reverse course.
The Department of Homeland Security ignored repeated requests for comment from CNN about whether it’s considering extending further protections to Nicaraguans.
Temporary protected status allows foreign nationals to live and work in the US without fear of deportation when their home countries are beset by dire conditions, such as natural disasters, epidemics or civil war. Nicaragua was designated for the status in 1999 after a hurricane devastated the country, and it had been extended every few years by every president since.
But the Trump administration has systematically ended most of the TPS protections on the books for more than 400,000 immigrants, saying it believes the status can be extended only if trouble in the countries stemming from the original disasters persists.
Cassandra is one of the TPS holders whose time is running out. CNN agreed to identify her only by a pseudonym, after previous news reports about her prompted the threats to her family and friends in Nicaragua.
She says she came to the US in 1996 on a tourist visa, fleeing a bad political situation and looking for work. When Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, her town was wiped out by a mudslide, and crime and instability jumped. Under TPS, she started working in the US and built a life here, including serving as a local union leader. She will not have any legal status when TPS expires.
She said that even though January is months away, she and her fellow Nicaraguan TPS holders are already losing their homes and businesses, and are “terrified” to go back.
Cassandra and Diaz-Balart noted that TPS recipients must have clean records and are largely strong contributors to the US economy. Diaz-Balart’s district has the highest concentration of Nicaraguans in the country, and he worries that Florida’s economy could be hurt by losing them.
“We live with fear, waiting for January to come,” Cassandra told CNN in an interview conducted in Spanish. “We don’t want to stay here illegally; it also frightens us to return to our country because of how bad the situation is. The police that are supposed to protect the people are instead the ones that are killing and assassinating the students that are the future for the development of my country.”
Cassandra’s fears are well founded, said Eric L. Olson, deputy director of the nonpartisan Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.
“It would be speculative on my part, but one could say (returners) might be viewed with suspicion for their time in the United States, since the relationship is pretty fraught at the moment,” Olson said, noting that many Nicaraguans fled during previous waves of political unrest and were largely opposed to Ortega’s movement.
“The Nicaraguans that would be returning would be returning to a very dangerous and unstable situation, and the fear is it might create more migration and more instability in the region,” Olson said. “This is far from a resolved situation. … There is still a very serious conflict going on.”
Cassandra says she always admired the US because of its commitment to democracy, and added that it seems hypocritical to send her and her counterparts back to a country run by a repressive leader the US has condemned.
“It is the world leader in democracy, that so much criticizes dictatorships and defends human rights, and now it wants to send us back to another dictatorship, where there is a great political insecurity,” she said. “We are at the point of a civil war in the country. So I see it as inconceivable that they’d send us there.”
CNN’s Catherine Shoichet, Natalie Gallón and Bethlehem Feleke contributed to this report.