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Judge orders FEMA to extend stays for Puerto Rican evacuees

Mayra Garcia packed up her belongings onSunday after she was told to leave the New Bedford hotel where she had been staying for several months.Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency must extend the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program for Puerto Rican refugees displaced by Hurricane Maria through July 23.

The extension will keep several hundred families temporarily housed in hotels in 22 states and Puerto Rico for three more weeks.

In a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday morning, FEMA spokesman William Booher said the agency would comply with the court’s order and notify participating hotels of the extension.

“FEMA will continue to work with its vendors and notify hotels that the TSA program for Puerto Rico has been extended until July 23, with checkout on July 24.”


Beyond that, FEMA will not comment on pending litigation, the statement said.

This is the sixth extension of the housing program and the second mandated by the courts.

The program was set to expire June 30, but national civil rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF filed a last-minute class-action lawsuit on behalf of eight families living in hotels in Massachusetts and Florida. Attorneys argued that many families lost homes when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and would effectively be left homeless if the TSA program ended. They also said that evicting refugees from hotels would violate their rights to due process.

In response, US District Court Judge Leo T. Sorokin granted a temporary restraining order to stop the eviction of Puerto Rican evacuees nationwide.

Tuesday’s ruling by US District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman continues that restraining order and maintains the status quo until he receives further information from both parties.

“It’s inconceivable that disaster victims have to continue to bring FEMA to court to force them to uphold their mandate and not discontinue the most basic aid to entire communities that have suffered through unimaginable disasters,” Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said in a statement.


“Fortunately, the court recognized the severity of the situation and the devastating consequences to evacuees who’ve already been displaced from their homes in Puerto Rico and is allowing them to stay in their hotels — a decision FEMA should’ve made on their own.”

At its peak, an estimated 7,000 families were lodged through the TSA program, according to FEMA. As of July 2, there were 420 families living in hotels in 22 states and Puerto Rico. Approximately 51 families are in Massachusetts.

This is a significant difference from the numbers FEMA reported June 27 when there were 1,763 families staying in hotels in 30 states and Puerto Rico, including 222 households in Massachusetts. The impending June 30 deadline and last-minute extension created confusion as hotels and families weren’t made aware of the injunction.

Attorneys with LatinoJustice PRLDEF said many families in several states ended up in shelters. FEMA said 188 families booked one-way flights back to Puerto Rico paid for by the agency as of June 28.

“This is not the first time FEMA has acted arbitrarily to cut off critical disaster relief to communities of color, though we hope it will be the last,” Bannan said in the statement. “There is a long way to go before FEMA provides these individuals with the relief they need and deserve.”

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.