MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Ronyde Christina Ponthieux, an 11-year-old U.S. citizen who lives in this South Florida suburb, spends most days alternating between two agonizing thoughts.
Some days, she ponders the possibility of her parents being forced to move back to their native Haiti and bringing her with them to a country she's never even visited.
"Just the thought of everything that's been going on – the earthquakes, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Matthew, the cholera outbreak – it's scary. I speak French, I don't speak Creole," she said in perfect English. "It would be hard to adapt to the environment."
Other days, she feels frightened her parents might have to return to Haiti and leave her behind. “I would be living with a different family. I could even be in the (foster care) system. It blows my mind.”
Ponthieux's parents wish their piano-playing sixth-grader wouldn't have to contemplate such thoughts, but that's the reality facing hundreds of thousands of families, all legal residents, that are now being ordered by the Trump administration to go back home.
Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, has allowed more than 310,000 foreigners to legally live and work in the U.S., many for more than two decades, as their countries recover from natural disasters and armed conflicts. Six countries, which represent 98 percent of the TPS population, have been cut from the program, each given a deadline to leave the U.S.
The first deadline, for Sudan, was scheduled to come up in just a few weeks. A federal judge’s order last week to temporarily stop the administration from ending the program offers hope to some TPS holders, but no guarantee about their future. The Justice Department is appealing the ruling.
That uncertainty has forced countless conversations within each family about their futures, especially what to do with their U.S.-born children, an estimated 273,000 U.S. citizens, according to the Center for Migration Studies. Those families now face three equally difficult options: stay in the U.S. together and become undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation, return home and leave their children behind, or return home as a family to a country their children have never known.
Ponthieux said that’s an impossible decision for parents and children alike.
"The best way to make America great again is to let my people stay," she said. "And my people are Haitians, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans. That's what makes America great, all these different people coming from different places with different cultures – everyone's learning something new, these ideas and different cultures can help build a better place.
“That’s what makes America great.”
The Department of Homeland Security argues that TPS has been wrongly extended for decades, violating the “temporary” intent of the program. In announcing each TPS cancellation, the Homeland Security secretary has said each country has sufficiently recovered from the catastrophic events that initially led to its TPS designation.
Emails between Washington and U.S. diplomats in each country have shown sharp disagreements over those conclusions, with many staffers on the ground saying conditions remain dire in the six countries losing TPS: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Nepal and Sudan.
Elba Concepcion Castillo Zepeda, a Nicaraguan grandmother who has lived and worked in the U.S. under TPS for nearly 20 years, agreed, saying she's terrified of being forced back to the Central American nation.
Castillo originally entered the U.S. on a tourist visa after receiving death threats because of her efforts to help the Contras, who were fighting to overthrow the socialist Sandinista regime. She fed the rebels, tended to them when they were injured, and even helped bury some Contra fighters in her tiny hometown of Susucayan. She said government-aligned forces responded by throwing bricks at her home, calling her out by name on local radio stations, and screaming that her body would be found in the street “with my mouth full of ants.”
Then, Castillo watched as Hurricane Mitch decimated the country in 1998, destroying her family's small farm. She was granted TPS and has worked in Miami ever since, cleaning houses, caring for children, and, now, as an in-home caregiver to an elderly man with Alzheimer's.
She's tried, and failed, to secure political asylum. The man she cares for has tried, and failed, to get her a work visa. And now with Nicaragua’s TPS expiring Jan. 5, Castillo is running out of time.
"What would I do there? At my age, there will be no jobs," said Castillo, 71, who lives with her daughter and two U.S. citizen grandchildren. "My life there is going to be dangerous. Anybody can kill me for not accepting the injustices of the government."
Mazin Ahmed has even less time to make his decision.
The 20-year-old is studying human biology and biochemistry at the University of Southern Maine, the start of what he hopes will be a career as a pediatrician. But Ahmed, his mother, and his two siblings all have TPS and may be forced to return to Sudan before their Nov. 2 deadline.
Ahmed, who hasn't lived in Sudan since he was a baby, said his mother is "definitely nervous" about the decision they'll have to make in the coming weeks. But rather than focus on the horrible decision they'll have to make, Ahmed said his family has chosen to put their energy toward finding a solution.
Ahmed has joined other TPS recipients to lobby Congress to pass a law to protect them. Other groups have been pursuing the legal route, filing lawsuits against the administration to preserve the program.
But with the administration showing no indication that they'll change their minds, Congress unable to accomplish anything immigration-related, Ahmed said their best remaining option is to look above.
"Our main focus is praying, staying strong, staying true to ourselves, and trying to make the best of our lives," he said.