SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Trump administration's decision to end a program that lets immigrants from four countries live and work legally in the U.S. was motivated by racism and leaves the immigrants' American born children with an "impossible choice," according to a federal lawsuit filed on Monday.
Nine immigrants and five children filed the suit in federal court in San Francisco to reinstate temporary protected status for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan.
The status is granted to countries ravaged by natural disasters or war. It lets citizens of those countries remain in the U.S. until the situation improves back home.
The lawsuit — at least the third challenging the administration's decision to end temporary protected status — cites President Donald Trump's vulgar language during a meeting in January to describe African countries.
"They did it because of xenophobia, and we need to make sure that we say it loudly so that everyone knows," said Martha Arevalo, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group, Central American Resource Center.
Arevalo spoke at a rally to announce the lawsuit outside the federal courthouse in San Francisco that was attended by some of the plaintiffs and dozens of demonstrators, some carrying signs that read, "Let Our People Stay."
One of the plaintiffs, Cristina Morales, said she came to the U.S. in 1993 at the age of 12 after fleeing El Salvador to escape domestic violence. She received temporary protected status in 2001 and now works as an after-school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area.
She was accompanied at the rally by her 14-year-old daughter, Crista Ramos, who along with her 11-year-old son, Diego Ramos, are U.S. citizens.
"I don't want the government to split my family and to lose my home, my friends and the opportunity for a good education," Crista said.
Morales, 37, her voice quivering with emotion, said she has nothing to go back to in El Salvador.
"If I pay taxes, health insurance, my house and the education of my children, what I have done wrong," she said.
The lawsuit names the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a defendant. The department declined to comment on pending litigation.
More than 200,000 immigrants could face deportation because of the change in policy, and they have more than 200,000 American children who risk being uprooted from their communities and schools, according to plaintiffs in the case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and other immigrant advocates.
The children face the "impossible choice" of leaving their country with their parents or staying without them, according to the suit.
"These American children should not have to choose between their country and their family," Ahilan Arulanantham, advocacy and legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement.
It's the latest lawsuit filed against the Trump administration over its crackdown on immigration. A case filed last month by Haitian and Salvadoran immigrants in Massachusetts also alleges the decision to end temporary protected status was racially motivated. The NAACP has filed a separate lawsuit in Maryland on behalf of Haitian immigrants who received temporary protected status.
The program was created for humanitarian reasons, and the status can be renewed by the U.S. government following an evaluation.
El Salvador was designated for the program in 2001 after an earthquake and the country's status was repeatedly renewed. The Trump administration announced in January that the program would expire for El Salvador in September 2019.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen concluded that El Salvador had received significant international aid to recover from the earthquake, and homes, schools and hospitals there had been rebuilt.
The Trump administration has ended the program for the other three countries as well.
The lawsuit in California alleges that the U.S. narrowed its criteria for determining whether countries qualified for temporary protected status and is violating the constitutional rights of people with temporary protected status and their U.S. citizen children.
The lawsuit seeks a court order to reinstate temporary protected status for people from the four countries, but it also proposes an alternative that would protect recipients with school-aged U.S. citizen children for as long as the children remain between five and 18 years old.
Taxin reported from Santa Ana, California.