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    In packed courtroom, lawyers spar over fate of ‘protected’ immigrants

    It was standing room only in a Massachusetts federal courtroom Thursday as immigrants, advocates, and attorneys observed the first court hearing in a case that could affect the ability of some 300,000 immigrants to remain in the country.

    The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice sued the Trump administration on behalf of Haitians, Salvadorans, and Hondurans, alleging that the federal government is discriminating against immigrants of color by ending temporary protections that have allowed hundreds of thousands of citizens from these countries to live legally in the United States — some for decades — after natural disasters in their homelands.

    The civil rights organization argued that the government’s decision to end Temporary Protected Status for Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras is unconstitutional and “impermissibly infected by invidious discrimination.” Their demand is not for the protections to be reinstated for these countries but for their citizens with that status to be allowed to remain legally in the United States, argued the organization, which also represents in the suit two immigrant advocacy groups, Centro Presente and Haitian-Americans United Inc.

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    The government, however, argued that the case should be dismissed because the sole discretion for determining which countries are granted Temporary Protected Status rests with the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and is, therefore, not subject to judicial oversight.

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    And even if President Trump has said racist things about immigrants of color, as the complaint states, there have been “no allegations whatsoever” that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, or former deputy secretary Elaine Duke, “has any discriminatory animus,” argued Joseph Dugan, a trial attorney with the Department of Justice civil division.

    “Donald Trump is their direct supervisor,” responded Kevin P. O’Keefe, of Choate, Hall & Stewart, co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the case. “It is unreasonable to dismiss out of hand that racial comments did not have some effect” on their decision-making.

    The Temporary Protected Status designation is a humanitarian program that protects immigrants in the United States whose countries have been deemed too perilous to return to because of natural disaster or armed conflicts. A country’s designation lasts six to 18 months and is renewed at the discretion of the executive branch of government, which has wide latitude to determine whether a country’s conditions have improved enough to again absorb its nationals.

    About 300,000 Salvadorans, Haitians, and Hondurans have been protected from deportation since their countries received the designation, which was given to El Salvador in 2001, Haiti in 2010, and Honduras in 1999 — all for catastrophic natural disasters.

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    In court Thursday, US District Judge Denise J. Casper listened as Oren Nimni from the Lawyer’s Committee argued that administration after administration, both Democrat and Republican, have renewed those designations over the years, determining the calamities that triggered the initial need for Temporary Protected Status have been compounded by additional disasters both natural and manmade — until now.

    The current administration is taking a much narrower view of reexamining a country’s conditions, which Nimni argued is a significant shift in policy that the government failed to notify the public about as required.

    Casper also considered the effect the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of the government in the lawsuit over the current version of the travel ban might have on the case before her.

    Dugan argued that the recent ruling by the nation’s highest court in favor of President Trump’s ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries means that in immigration-related matters, the court must defer to the executive branch. Nimni and O’Keefe pushed back, saying that while deference is necessary, it must be limited to national security.

    Yesy Patricia Carbajal, a 39-year-old single mother from Honduras, listened near the back of the courtroom with her 4-year-old daughter quietly coloring as the lawyer’s argued and the judge questioned.

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    “You know what I was thinking when I was in there,” the mother said after the hourlong hearing. “It’s so easy to sit there and just decide someone else’s life.”

    ‘It’s so easy to sit there and just decide someone else’s life.’

    It’s unclear when Casper would issue a ruling.

    Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.