The Trump administration was warned by intelligence analysts that ending protections for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans living in the US would likely drive a spike in illegal immigration. They did it anyway.
That intelligence assessment was made public late Tuesday as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security over the termination of Temporary Protected Status for citizens of multiple countries, many of whom have lived in the US upwards of two decades.
Questions have swirled since the administration began systematically terminating the majority of TPS designations on the books, impacting more than 400,000 immigrants who have lived in the US for years. The administration justified the moves by citing the law, saying that the Department of Homeland Security was compelled to end the protections because conditions from the original disasters that precipitated the protected status had improved.
But the intelligence report and another email from the acting secretary last year to White House chief of staff John Kelly add to other uncovered documents that raise serious questions about whether the Trump administration ignored its own experts' analysis and recommendations to fulfill a pre-ordained objective.
The email explains that the administration was intending to "send a clear signal that TPS in general is coming to a close."
The analysts' report and email were revealed as part of a dispute in the lawsuit over the production of the internal documents that were used to come to the decision. Attorneys representing the immigrants suing in the case argue the government has been too slow to produce the documents.
The immigrants suing the government allege, among other things, that the decision to end the protections was racially motivated and not based on reasoned decision-making.
In supporting their request to the judge to order more document production, the attorneys released the assessment and a November email from then-acting Secretary Elaine Duke to Kelly laying out her reasoning to postpone deciding on TPS for Honduran immigrants for six months. Current Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen ended it this spring when that time ran out.
DHS did not immediately respond to request for comment on Tuesday's documents.
Intelligence analysts warned of illegal immigration
The intelligence assessment, dated November 2, 2017, concluded that there was a chance of "illegal return" for protected immigrants from the four main countries covered: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Haiti. The analysts found the first two would have the "highest rates" of individuals trying to sneak back into the US, whereas Haitians would be impeded by the island's location and Nicaragua would be mitigated by the low numbers of protectees relative to the other countries.
The report cited terrible conditions in the home countries, including an inability to absorb the returning immigrants, as well as deep ties to the US.
TPS beneficiaries have more than 200,000 US citizen children, analysts said. Many beneficiaries have home mortgages and far higher incomes than available in their home countries.
The assessment's confidence level was "medium," since the information was based on a lot of NGO reports and because migration is based on a number of complicated factors.
Duke revealed administration wanted to end TPS
The email from Duke to Kelly last November came a few days before CNN reported alongside other media outlets that Kelly tried to pressure Duke to change her mind on Honduras -- the only Central American country covered by TPS that had its status extended temporarily under this administration.
The email is dated November 6, the date the TPS decision was publicly announced.
In the email, Duke went to great lengths to explain to Kelly that she believed postponing a decision on Honduras would still "send a clear signal that TPS in general is coming to a close" and "is consistent with the President's position on immigration" -- an apparent attempt to pre-empt any objections that she was not living up to the administration's goals.
"This decision is a strong break with past practice and sends a strong message that this Administration will no longer routinely end TPS with little for the statute (sic)," Duke wrote. "By not affirmatively extending, I'm stating that I'm not satisfied that the country conditions remain -- but not yet sure how to best end TPS for this country."
The administration has denied, in general, that their objective was ending TPS overall. In public they have mainly said that they are merely restoring the law when it comes to TPS and have to end TPS for these countries because conditions have improved.
Announcements on the termination of protections have emphasized a "review of the disaster-related conditions upon which the country's original designation was based ... as required by statute." Officials and the statements have also placed the responsibility on Congress to come up with a more permanent solution.
Duke wrote to Kelly that she had received "multiple intelligence reports" the prior week that "TPS termination for Honduras could have strong consequences for other immigration, (transnational criminal organizations), and drug reduction priorities."
"I want to understand this better so I can adequately determine the appropriate plan and path for termination," she said, adding it would be critical to work with Honduras on the plan.
Duke also denied that she is making the choice "for fear of criticism" because "every decision" she makes gets criticized.
"I take seriously my role as Deputy and currently acting Secretary and would not make a decision based on anything but the facts," Duke wrote. "While some are portraying this differently, this decision is really just a difference in strategy to get to the President's objectives."
In response to reporting that she and Kelly had clashed over the decision, Duke days later released a statement saying she had "received input" from across the administration, and that "at no time" did Kelly "pressure" Duke to terminate TPS for Central American countries.
Previous doubts raised
CNN has previously reported that ending TPS for Central Americans and Haiti ignored the recommendations of diplomats and that a staff-level report contradicted the idea that Haiti had recovered from the initial conditions that precipitated its TPS designation.
In response to the attorney's allegations of not producing enough documents, attorneys for the government said it was actually their opponents who were acting in "bad faith."
"Defendants have been working around the clock to respond to Plaintiffs' ever-increasing volume of discovery requests and to comply with the Court's orders," the government wrote. "Agency counsel have been working weekends and through the night with no sleep to review and produce the documents Plaintiffs identified as being necessary for their preliminary injunction motion. Yet, at every turn Plaintiffs have demanded more and repeatedly threatened to go to the Court."