The Trump administration is to remove a special status that allows Honduran immigrants to remain in the US legally. The protection was introduced after Hurricane Mitch devastated the Central American country.
The White House said on Friday it will end a scheme that gives temporary protection to immigrants from Honduras, which will leave some 57,000 people at risk of deportation.
The temporary protected status (TPS) is granted to immigrants after natural disasters or violent conflicts that would prevent them from safely returning to their home countries.
Status introduced after hurricane
More than 100,000 Hondurans were allowed to enter the US following the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The status was also granted to Nicaragua for the same reason.
They now have until January 2020, to either return home or find alternative ways of remaining in the US, through marriage or sponsorship.
The Department of Homeland Security "determined that the disruption of living conditions in Honduras from Hurricane Mitch … has decreased to a degree that it should no longer be regarded as substantial."
While expressing its disappointment over the decision, Honduras' foreign relations ministry said in a statement that returnees "are and always will be welcome in their homeland, where they will be received with open arms," and "their reintegration into our society will be facilitated."
Trump pushes bipartisan immigration deal
Honduras 'can't cope' with returnees
But those remarks were contradicted by Marlon Tabora, Honduras' ambassador to the US, who warned that the poverty-stricken country would struggle to repatriate tens of thousands of people.
"These families have lived in the United States for 20 years and re-integrating them into the country will not be easy if they decide to return," he said.
Since taking office in January 2017, US President Donald Trump has tightened immigration rules, especially for those coming from Latin America over the US southern border with Mexico.
Trump has also taken to social media several times in recent weeks to criticize a "caravan" of migrants, mostly from Central America, that has crossed Mexico seeking entry into the US. Many say they are fleeing violence and political unrest at home and hope to claim asylum.
De factor residency
Critics of the protection scheme complain that the beneficiaries are given de facto US residency, due to repeated extensions of the status.
TPS advocates said the withdrawal of the status would force many people to close businesses, give up well-paid jobs, and leave families to return home.
The 57,000 figure represents a small fraction of the estimated 1.1 million-plus Hondurans living in the US, who each year send home remittances totaling some $4.2 billion (€3.5 billion), or nearly one-sixth of Honduras' $26 billion gross domestic product.