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Trump extends legal protection for nearly 59,000 Haitians in U.S.

President Donald Trump is again backing away from his hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric from the campaign trail, this time by extending the legal status of nearly 59,000 Haitians already in the U.S..

Haitian activists, the Haitian government, immigrant advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers pressed the White House to maintain the special status for Haitians affected by the 2010 earthquake in their country, with some advocates warning that Trump and other Republicans could face political repercussions—particularly in Florida, which is home to a large Haitian community.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly allowed only another six months, passing up the typical 18-month extension. Trump aides are pointing to that curtailment as evidence of their intent to conduct a more rigorous review of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program under which the Haitians won relief six years ago.

The TPS program is one of several forms of relief the U.S. has given to foreigners over the years when their homelands were struck by natural disasters or armed conflict. The program allows nationals of the affected countries to remain in the U.S. and receive work permits until the disaster or unrest in their home country abates. People in the U.S. from those countries are eligible whether they were here legally or illegally at the time their country was designated for TPS.

Kelly warned that Haitians who hold the special status should not assume it will be renewed after the new expiration set for next January.

“This six-month extension should allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States, and should also provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients,” the secretary said in a statement.

However, the secretary stopped short of embracing an option reportedly recommended by top immigration officials: announcing definitively that the special designation will end early next year.

DHS officials briefing reporters said Haiti was eager to have its nationals return, despite about $2 billion in remittances from the U.S. to Haiti annually. Remittances from abroad represented 25 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product in 2015 — one of the highest percentages of any nation, according to data compiled by the World Bank.

In a statement, Kelly said the Haitian government wanted to have their citizens return home from the U.S. “in the near future.”

However, Haiti’s Ambassador to the U.S., Paul Altidor, said his country made it clear it supported the full, 18-month extension permitted under U.S. law.

“The near future doesn’t mean six months,” Altidor said. “We were quite specific and quite clear that a minimum of 18 months was needed to get things going.”

“We did that in writing, we did that in person,” he said. “We had a lengthy discussion about it.” The ambassador added that “it was a necessity for Haiti.”

He said that he hopes a six-month extension will afford time to broker longer-term relief and give Haitian and U.S. officials “sufficient time to come back to the negotiating table.”

Lawmakers who backed the extension welcomed the news, although some expressed concern about another showdown half a year from now.