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By Daphne Psaledakis
(Reuters) - The U.S. State Department warned last October that a Trump administration decision to end temporary protection for immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua could worsen efforts to combat illicit drug trade and gang violence, according to documents released on Wednesday.
Senator Robert Menendez, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made public the documents, which also warned that the move could force U.S.-citizen children to return to those countries with their parents, exposing them to rampant violence.
Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in a letter on Oct. 31, 2017 that the Central American countries no longer qualified to be designated for Temporary Protected Status because of improved conditions following environmental disasters that initially triggered the protective status.
But he also wrote that countries losing TPS status would likely retaliate against the United States by reducing their help in countering illegal immigration and gang violence.
The letter was sent to then-Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke.
"Former Secretary Tillerson made it clear that ending TPS for El Salvador and Honduras would have major repercussions, including a likely backlash that weakened our cooperation to combat the drug trade and criminal gangs in Central America. And yet, the Trump administration did it anyway," Menendez said in a statement.
TPS offers protection from deportation to immigrants who already are in the United States, including those who entered illegally, from countries affected by natural disasters, civil conflicts and other problems.
When Trump took office, TPS was protecting about 300,000 people. It covered El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
But Trump has been sceptical about the programme and has announced he was ending TPS for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Sudan.
In May, the Trump administration announced that citizens of Honduras would lose their TPS on Jan. 5, 2020. Over 55,000 Hondurans will potentially be vulnerable to deportation.
At the time of the announcement, Marlon Tabora, Honduras' ambassador to the United States, told Reuters the country lacks conditions for the repatriation of tens of thousands of people.
In January, the Trump administration said it was ending TPS for El Salvador on Sept. 9, 2019, giving around 200,000 Salvadorans 18 months to leave the United States or seek lawful residency.
"The fact that the Trump administration is knowingly putting our national security and the safety of TPS beneficiaries and U.S.-citizen children at risk is appalling and unacceptable," Menendez said in a statement. He called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to reverse the decision.
(This version of the story corrects headline to reflect impact of ending State Dept. programme.)
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Richard Cowan; Editing by Susan Thoams)