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By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of Salvadorans, Haitians and others now sheltered in the United States from danger in their home countries might have to leave under a crackdown the Trump administration is weighing on a program that critics slam as "back-door" immigration.
People close to the administration said the White House is considering anti-immigration activists' appeals for pull-back on the 27-year old U.S. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which protects more than 300,000 people in the country.
"There's no question people inside the administration want to reform the excesses," said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group that seeks to reduce immigration into the United States.
"We have definitely expressed our opinions to the administration. This time there actually are people willing to listen," Beck said in a telephone interview.
Officials at the State Department and Department of Homeland Security would not comment on administration plans for TPS.
The White House did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
President Donald Trump campaigned last year on a promise to deport large numbers of immigrants, a racially-tinged political theme that won him passionate support among some U.S. voters.
Since he took office in January, Trump has moved to ban U.S. entry by people from select Muslim countries. He also announced the end next March of an Obama-era program giving temporary legal status to "Dreamers" brought illegally into the United States as children, unless Congress revives it.
Now immigration advocacy groups fear Trump will curtail TPS by refusing to renew the protected status of some of the nine countries covered: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Last month, Sudan was slated for TPS termination, effective November 2018. Immigration groups were heartened somewhat that South Sudan's status was renewed in September through mid-2019.
Advocacy groups said they are also concerned Trump might seek legislative changes making it harder to designate TPS countries.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which also seeks to reduce overall immigration, said the administration is assessing each country's status. "In the past it was routine renewal," he said.
FAIR would be "open" to TPS continuing, Mehlman said, but only with assurances that participation is temporary and "not a 20-year stay."
Several immigration advocacy groups said officials within the administration have told them significant changes to TPS were being debated among agencies and the White House.
In July, Trump's Department of Homeland Security fired a warning shot when it renewed Haiti's designation for only six months instead of the typical 18 months. "During this six-month extension, beneficiaries are encouraged to prepare for their return to Haiti in the event Haiti’s designation is not extended again," the department warned.
TEMPORARY OR PERMANENT?
Critics have complained the program allows participants to repeatedly extend their stays in 6-18 month increments in case of a natural disaster, civil strife or other emergencies in their homelands.
Haiti, for example, has had TPS designation for seven years; El Salvador for 16 years. "It's not TPS, it is PPS, Permanent Protected Status," Beck said. "The chance of someone having to leave is closer to the chance of being struck by lightning."
Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights at the Women's Refugee Commission in New York, acknowledged TPS needs repair, but warned that if Trump forced thousands of Salvadorans to go home, they would be easy targets of gang violence after years of living in the United States and raising families.
Many of them "have kids who are U.S. citizens, but it could push the families underground" if parents lose their work permits and face deportation, she said.
Paul Altidor, Haiti's ambassador to the United States, said in a telephone interview that his government is asking the Trump administration for an 18-month extension, citing an ongoing cholera outbreak and destruction from recent hurricanes.
"These people have been strung along," said Matt Adams, legal director for the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, disputing the critics who say TPS was not meant to provide protection for a decade or more.
He said TPS participants have had their hopes raised and then dashed as repeated attempts in Congress to update the TPS program have sputtered, while past administrations have carved out programs for some groups of immigrants by granting them permanent legal status.
Adams said that in the event of a crackdown, some people, such as those married to U.S. citizens, will have other legal ways to stay.
But he said many of his clients, including entire families, will have their lives "thrown into chaos."
(Reporting By Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Yeganeh Torbati and Jeff Mason; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and David Gregorio)