A federal appeals court ruled on Monday that the Trump administration acted within its authority in terminating legal protections that have allowed hundreds of thousands of immigrants to live and work legally in the United States, sometimes for decades, after fleeing conflict or natural disasters in their home countries.
The 2-1 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit effectively strips legal immigration status from some 400,000 people, rendering them deportable if they do not voluntarily leave the country. The decision affects the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries of a program offering what is known as “temporary protected status,” which has permitted them to remain in the United States after being uprooted from their unstable homelands.
The Trump administration has argued that the emergency conditions that existed when people were invited to come to the United States — earthquakes, hurricanes, civil war — had occurred long ago. The program, it said, had inadvertently conferred permanent immigration status for people from places like El Salvador, Haiti and Sudan, most of whom it said no longer needed safe haven.
The long-awaited decision does not immediately end the protections. The Trump administration has agreed to maintain them until at least March 5, 2021, for people from five of the affected countries and until November 2021 for people from El Salvador.
If President Trump is not re-elected, a new administration could choose to maintain the program.
The plaintiffs are almost certain to request that the decision be reconsidered by an 11-judge panel hearing the case en banc. They could also ask the Supreme Court to take up the matter.
“It’s a really devastating day for hundreds of thousands of people who have lived and worked in the country lawfully for decades,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.
“But it’s not the end of the line for them,” Mr. Jawetz said. “There will be additional litigation, and ultimately the fate of these people may be decided by the outcome of the November election.”
Proponents of limits on immigration hailed the decision.
“The Ninth Circuit affirmed two clear aspects of T.P.S.,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in a statement. “The first is that the T in T.P.S. stands for temporary and that it is not intended, nor should it be, a backdoor to permanent residency.”
He said the decision also made it clear that the government had discretion to determine when it was safe for immigrants given temporary protections to return home. For countries such as El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan, he said, “the crises that triggered the T.P.S. designation have long since passed.”
The court’s ruling could force many people who have been in the country for years, if not decades, to contemplate leaving their jobs, homes and communities to return to impoverished countries that are ill-prepared to absorb them. It also could result in the separation of families because beneficiaries have about 200,000 U.S.-born children.