The Trump administration said it will extend temporary legal protections for Somalis who live in the United States, saving hundreds of people from the prospect of deportation back to the war-ravaged country.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Thursday announced an 18-month extension of temporary legal status for approximately 500 Somalis who now live and work in the United States, citing the ongoing armed conflict and “extraordinary and temporary conditions” in the country.

The decision to extend the designation saves many Somali families — including some who have lived and worked here for nearly three decades — from having to make an agonizing decision over whether to stay and risk deportation. Those who chose to stay would live in constant fear and anxiety over being deported back to a country where chronic armed conflict and a devastating drought have led to mass displacement, and where large swaths of the nation are controlled by the Somali Islamic terror group al-Shabab.

“If this program had not been extended, then hundreds would have been forced into this Orwellian choice — either go into hiding [in the U.S.], or leave and be permanently deprived of love and companionship,” said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. “The odds would have been very high that you would never see your family again.”

Temporary protected status, known as TPS, was created by Congress to provide haven for immigrants who have fled countries wracked by violence, natural disasters and other forms of civil strife that prevent their safe return.

The extension allows current Somali TPS beneficiaries to re-register for TPS and remain in the United States with work authorization through March 17, 2020, according to an announcement from the Department of Homeland Security.

Ongoing conflict

The protections were first extended to Somalia in 1991 under President George H.W. Bush in response to a clan-driven civil war that followed the collapse of the authoritarian Siad Barre regime. The designation has been extended 22 times since then, shielding many Somalis from deportation and enabling them to build families and businesses here.

A decision to end temporary protections for Somalis, advocates had warned, would have torn apart many families who have been living and working in the country legally for years. That’s because many TPS holders are married to legal immigrants and have children who are U.S. citizens.

The announcement to extend TPS to Somalis came as a surprise to some immigration attorneys and activists, given President Donald Trump’s increasingly hard-line stance on immigration and his past comments that were critical of Somali refugees. During the 2016 campaign, Trump suggested that Somali refugees were not being properly vetted and were turning Minnesota into a hotbed for terror groups. “The state is having tremendous problems,” Trump said at a campaign stop. Soon after his election, Trump imposed a travel ban on Somalia and several other Muslim-majority countries.

Since last year, the administration has stripped protections for more than 400,000 immigrants from countries that have suffered ongoing violence, political unrest or natural disasters. The countries that have lost protected status include El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan. Immigration attorneys and activists have questioned the decisions, arguing that conditions in a number of these countries have actually worsened.

In Somalia’s case, it appears that the Department of Homeland Security took careful consideration of conditions on the ground. Last October, Somalia experienced its worst-ever terrorist attack when a massive truck bombing in the capital of Mogadishu killed 512 people. And just last week, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for Somalia, saying violent crimes, including kidnapping and murder, are widespread throughout the country.

In January 2017, the Department of Homeland Security said Somalia had more than 1.1 million displaced residents as a result of ongoing armed conflict and a severe drought, as well as some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world. “Somalia continues to experience a complex protracted emergency that is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world,” the federal agency said last year in extending the designation.

“No one in their right mind would voluntarily return to Somalia right now,” said Mustafa Jumale, co-founder of the Black Immigrant Collective, an advocacy group for black immigrants and their families.

In explaining its decision Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying, “After carefully reviewing conditions in Somalia with interagency partners, Secretary Nielsen determined the ongoing armed conflict and extraordinary and temporary conditions that support Somalia’s current designation for TPS continue to exist.”

Political pressure

Days before the announcement, the Trump administration received a barrage of letters from elected officials, both in Minnesota and in Washington, D.C. Last week, 83 members of Congress, including Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, sent a letter to Nielsen and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging them to redesignate the program for Somalia and extend the program for 18 months. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota’s U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, also sent letters, citing the security risks of sending people back to the war-torn country. The protections were set to expire Sept. 17.

“The case [for extending TPS] was so strong,” Klobuchar said Thursday. “You have people who have literally grown up here and have raised their kids here. … The alternative would be sending them home to a place that is still experiencing major terrorism attacks.”

Even so, the decision by the Department of Homeland Security is narrow in scope and only extends protections to the roughly 500 Somali TPS beneficiaries who now live in the United States. Advocates in the Somali community sought to have Somalia redesignated as a protected country, which is broader and last occurred under the Obama administration in 2012.

However, DHS opted not to redesignate Somalia. As a result, Somalis who began residing in the United States after May 2012 are not eligible for protections. And those who are currently benefiting from the temporary program are still in legal limbo, with no clear path toward citizenship, immigration attorneys said.

“It would have been an embarrassment if the Trump administration had stopped TPS, but they did not do any service for Somalis by only extending” the protections to current beneficiaries, said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Thousands are left behind with no protections at all.”