When it comes to the US government’s policies on immigration relief for immigrants who are unable to return to their home countries due to unsafe conditions, you could say that Africans are valued much less than other groups, two-thirds less to be exact. This is evidenced by the recent six-month extension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) - instead of the typical 18-months for the estimated 8000 Guinean, Sierra Leonean, and Liberian recipients of TPS.
TPS is a temporary designation that is granted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for citizens of other countries residing in the US whose home countries have experienced a natural disaster or conflict that makes their return unsafe. Altogether, there are about 350,000 TPS recipients in the US with the majority from Central American countries.
The 2014 Ebola crisis, which ravaged the West African nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, provided the basis for the US government’s designation of TPS. It is commonly acknowledged that the 2014 Ebola epidemic virtually decimated the fragile healthcare infrastructure that existed in the 3 countries. According to the March 22, 2016 issue of the Federal Register, from the period March 2014 - November 2015, these three nations suffered over 11,000 deaths among their more than 28,500 cases of Ebola.
In its wake, the epidemic precipitated acute food insecurity, a deepened healthcare crisis exacerbated by the deaths of a sizeable number of African healthcare workers. The tremendous loss of life has also led to a sizeable orphan population due to the deaths of many caretakers and parents. In 2014, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson approved Guinea for TPS designation for 18 months due to the extraordinary impacts of the Ebola virus.
Though Secretary Johnson has acknowledged the stark and persistent challenges of containment and recovery facing the 3 West African nations, his remediation of the issue is inadequate. The Federal Register further illustrates the long term consequences of the Ebola epidemic as including but not limited to “ongoing medical issues and mental trauma experienced by EVD survivors; challenges in rebuilding fragile healthcare systems; and lingering food insecurity due to the epidemic’s impact on economic activity, productivity, and livelihoods.” The World Health Organization continues to identify the epidemic as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
If the extraordinary conditions in the 3 African countries persist, why then haven’t they been afforded the usual 18-month extension like their counterparts from El Salvador and Nicaragua who receive regular TPS extensions? It follows that the 6-month extension of TPS for Ebola affected countries is inadequate.
In the early months of 2016, a group of advocates, organizers, and community members who had been campaigning for TPS extension began to amplify their demands for the renewal of the TPS designation for the Ebola-affected countries. But Secretary Johnson’s announcement of an extension of TPS for Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia by six months confused many who had expected a full 18-month extension. Why would the secretary renew the designation for just six months when he had acknowledged in the Federal Register, “the lingering effects of the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak and continued recovery challenges support this six-month extension?” There was no reasonable expectation for any drastic improvements in the circumstances of people living in these countries within a six month period.
Now consider some of the language present in the Federal Register notice for a recent extension of El Salvador, which was initially granted TPS in 2001:
"There continues to be a substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions in El Salvador resulting from a series of earthquakes in 2001, and El Salvador remains unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return of its nationals."
I do support the arguments for continued TPS designation for these countries. But, it is necessary to question why TPS was extended for only six months for the African countries when they are recovering from the more recent 2014 Ebola crisis. The material difference in the two cases is that El Salvador’s TPS designation was renewed for 18 months as compared to six months for the Africans. Despite the serious narco-fueled violence that exists in countries like Honduras and El Salvador, it would be very hard to argue that life in the three African countries is significantly better.
The six-month extension is unusual. I know this because the DHS website provides detailed information on various countries receiving TPS and the pattern for full allotment of 18-month extensions is clear. Africans have received the short end of the stick in the Ebola TPS case.
The extension also poses unfair challenges to the 8000 recipients of Ebola TPS who were eligible to renew their TPS status under Secretary Johnson’s extension, as applicants still had to pay the same $500 application fees. In effect, applicants who applied for the extension would only be able to use their employment authorization for 3 or 4 months after receiving the approval letters. Additionally, the six-month extension is problematic because it expires in November, just before a new president is sworn in. It is difficult to imagine that the totality of grassroots efforts currently underway to pressure Secretary Johnson to renew TPS for Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia will have any effect just before the next presidential transition. It is more likely the program will expire this November with deportations to resume.
We are forced to continue mobilizing on this issue because we believe, as Secretary Johnson believes, that the dire living conditions in the three African countries justify the continued extensions of TPS. TPS is a manifestation of the larger problem of comprehensive immigration reform that needs to be undertaken by the US Congress. Lack of comprehensive immigration reform is causing the US government to rely on the “temporary” TPS programs in providing immigration relief for some undocumented populations.
But, Africans are a part of the fabric of this nation and equal members of society under the US constitution. We must receive equal treatment on TPS until the US government is ready to undertake real comprehensive immigration reform.