A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Miami Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, are urging President Donald Trump to allow people in the United States but from Caribbean countries hit by Hurricane Irma to stay here for a temporary period.
Ros-Lehtinen, along with New York Democrat Eliot Engel and California Democrat Barbara Lee are circulating a letter to colleagues in Congress over the weekend asking them to support extending what’s known as Temporary Protected States to affected countries, including the Dominican Republic and Antigua and Barbuda.
On Monday, they will send the letter to Trump.
“While Congress and the Administration work to provide relief for those affected by devastation from Irma in our own country, we must also support our friends in the Caribbean,” the draft letter, obtained by Miami Herald, said. “As the storm moves away from the first-impacted islands, the casualty toll is slowly rising as deaths have been reported in Barbuda and Saint Martin. The economies of the affected areas have been completely destroyed and will take years to rebuild.”
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The TPS program is administered by the Department of Homeland Security and allows foreign nationals already in the United States from 10 countries to stay in the United States for a designated period of time. Trump, who continues to talk tough on immigration, hasn’t indicated that he’s open to extending the program to more people from more countries.
One of the 10 countries currently on the TPS list, Haiti, lies within Irma's path. TPS was extended to Haiti in 2011 after a massive 2010 earthquake and Florida lawmakers have asked the Trump administration to extend Haiti’s TPS status, which is set to expire in January 2018.
Other countries impacted by Irma include Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, along with overseas territories of the UK, France and the Netherlands. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were also impacted by Irma, though residents there are U.S. citizens and not subject to TPS.
“I have signed onto Eliot's letter and I support extending TPS to the folks living in the US who are from nations impacted by Hurricane Irma,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “For them to go back to their areas that have been devastated by Irma would not be constructive because the infrastructure is not able to sustain the economy. Jobs would be impossible for them to get and if they are granted TPS here, they can earn a living and pay taxes to help our economy.”
Ros-Lehtinen and Engel serve on the House Foreign Affairs Committee while Lee is part of a congressional subcommittee that deals with international diplomacy.
“I am heartbroken by the loss of life and damage caused by Hurricane Irma, even as the storm still churns toward the United States mainland,” Engel said. “Images from the island of Barbuda—reportedly no longer habitable—are especially haunting. I urge the Trump Administration to assist our friends in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico with all available resources. In particular, the Administration must provide Temporary Protected Status to Caribbean citizens who lived directly in Irma’s destructive path but are currently residing in the United States and unable to return to their home countries. I plan to lead efforts to ensure that this happens. Congress must also get to work to make sure any needed disaster relief assistance is quickly appropriated for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean region where Irma did heavy damage.”
Engel cited a 2016 law he co-authored with Ros-Lehtinen as justification for extending TPS to the Caribbean.
“The affected regions clearly meet the criteria for Temporary Protected Status designation,” the letter said. “Although the Hurricane is far from over, the destruction it has left behind is unprecedented.”
At least 21 people have been killed by Irma in the Caribbean, and islands in the eastern Caribbean could be hit again by Hurricane Jose, a powerful Category 4 storm.
A hurricane watch is in effect for Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, all islands that have already been badly hit by Irma.