BOSTON, MA (AP) — 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 protected 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 he made on the campaign trial and in office.
“Today we are drawing a line in the sand and saying that governmental policy cannot be based in bias and discrimination,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, which filed the complaint.
Temporary protected status provides safe havens for people from countries experiencing armed conflicts, natural disasters and other challenges. The program has been continuously extended for Haitians since a 2010 earthquake. Protections for El Salvadorans have been in place since earthquakes devastated the country in 2001.
In January, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said it was the program for Salvadoran immigrants, giving them until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the U.S. or face deportation. Months earlier, the administration terminated 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 has said that conditions in Haiti have improved significantly and the country is now able to “safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens.” The Trump administration said last month that El Salvador 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.”
A Homeland Security spokeswoman said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
The complaint was filed on behalf of Centro Presente, a Massachusetts-based Latin American immigrant organization, and eight people who have been living in the U.S. under the program. The end of the protections impacts more than 200,000 Salvadorans and 90,000 Haitians in the U.S., according to the complaint.
“I feel attacked. I feel discriminated because I know that I contribute to the nation’s economy and the president doesn’t respect or value my contributions,” Juan Carlos Vidal, a restaurant owner from El Salvador who has two U.S. citizen children, said through a translator.
Their lawsuit 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.