Fast Facts

The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate a foreign country for Temporary Protected Status if conditions prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely. Under this status, eligible foreign nationals can temporarily stay and work in the U.S.

Work authorization lasts as long as the status, but the documents proving it can expire. The Department of Homeland Security gives extensions and recently notified people about them via letter.

Not all of DHS’s guidance tells employers that letters are acceptable proof of authorization; some people reportedly lost jobs over this.

We recommended consistent communication about work authorizations.

[Figure title updated to add year.]

Temporary Protected Status Beneficiaries, by Country of Citizenship, Fiscal Year 2018

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What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) reviews of countries for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) include three main steps, according to DHS and other agencies' documents and officials. First, the Secretary of Homeland Security may initiate a review of a country for TPS designation in response to various triggering factors, such as a request from a foreign government, on the basis of one or more statutory conditions. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires subsequent reviews after an initial designation. Second, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—which manages and coordinates the TPS review process for DHS—and the Department of State (State) compile country conditions reports and recommendations to inform the Secretary's decision. Although the INA does not prescribe the other agencies that must be consulted for a TPS review,State generally has a role in providing input for the Secretary of Homeland Security's consideration. GAO found DHS collected country conditions reports and recommendations from USCIS and State for all eight of the countries GAO selected for its review. Other DHS components and non-DHS entities may also provide information. Third, under the INA,the Secretary of Homeland Security exercises discretion in deciding whether to initially designate a country for TPS. For an existing designation, the Secretary determines whether country conditions warrant an extension or termination of TPS. DHS provides official notice of decisions in the Federal Register.

Three Primary Steps in the Secretary of Homeland Security's Temporary Protected Status (TPS) Reviews

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DHS has communicated TPS decisions to the public through required Federal Register notices as well as other mechanisms. However, DHS has not provided consistent guidance regarding mechanisms it uses to communicate automatic extensions of TPS employment authorization documents. USCIS officials stated that the agency has typically communicated these extensions of documents for TPS beneficiaries through Federal Register notices. However, for five recent automatic extensions, USCIS instead mailed individual notifications to thousands of beneficiaries. USCIS guidance on its website identifies the individual notifications as a mechanism for communicating automatic extensions, but an employers' handbook and related guidance do not. As a result, some employers reportedly terminated TPS beneficiaries' employment because the employers did not understand or accept the notifications as proof of employment authorization. Consistent guidance about the mechanisms USCIS uses could help reduce the risk that TPS beneficiaries will lose their jobs because of confusion about their authorization to work in the United States.

Why GAO Did This Study

The INA includes provisions for eligible foreign nationals residing in the United States to obtain temporary humanitarian protection from removal, as well as work authorization, when their country of origin is designated for TPS. Since 1990, nationals of 22 countries have received TPS. The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate a country for TPS after consulting with other agencies and determining that the country meets statutory criteria related to armed conflict, environmental disaster, or extraordinary or temporary conditions that prevent its nationals from returning in safety. The Secretary may designate a country for TPS for periods of 6 to 18 months and can extend a TPS designation if deemed appropriate.

GAO was asked to review the TPS decision process. This report, among other things, (1) describes the approach DHS takes to inform the Secretary of Homeland Security's TPS reviews and (2) examines DHS's communication to the public regarding TPS decisions and related information, including employment authorization. GAO reviewed documentation and data related to TPS decisions, including a nongeneralizable sample of 26 decisions for eight countries in fiscal years 2014 through 2018. GAO selected the countries to reflect various types of TPS decisions, among other factors. GAO also interviewed agency officials.

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GAO recommends USCIS consistently identify in published guidance the mechanisms used to communicate automatic extensions of TPS employment authorization documents. DHS concurred with GAO's recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services The Director of USCIS should update published guidance, such as Handbook for Employers: Guidance for Completing Form I-9 (M-274), to consistently identify each of the official mechanisms that USCIS may use to communicate automatic extensions of TPS employment authorization documents.
In its written comments on our draft report, DHS agreed with our recommendation and noted planned actions to implement it, including updating guidance in DHS's M-274 handbook. In July 2020, DHS officials informed us that DHS had revised the M-274 handbook to clarify its standard practice for issuing EAD extensions for TPS beneficiaries through a Federal Register notice. Officials added that USCIS's use of individually mailed notifications was an emergency mechanism and that USCIS has no current plan to issue other similar notices. However, given that USCIS may still use mechanisms other than a Federal Register notice to extend the expiration date of a TPS beneficiary's EAD in certain temporary or emergency circumstances, we believe the confusion among employers that we described in our report has the potential to reoccur. In August 2020, we informed DHS that updating the M-274 to reflect that USCIS may use other mechanisms in certain circumstances and that USCIS will post information about any deviations from standard processes on its website, such as USCIS TPS or I-9 Central TPS, would meet the intent of our recommendation. As of January 2021, we continue to monitor DHS's actions in response to this recommendation.

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