African refugees see racial bias as US welcomes Ukrainians

Al­though pro­grams like TPS pro­vide crit­i­cal pro­tec­tions for vul­ner­a­ble refugees, they can al­so leave many in le­gal lim­bo for years with­out pro­vid­ing a path­way to cit­i­zen­ship, said Kar­la Morales, a 24-year-old from El Sal­vador who has been on TPS near­ly her whole life



(AP) — Wil­fred Tebah doesn’t be­grudge the U.S. for swift­ly grant­i­ng hu­man­i­tar­i­an pro­tec­tions to Ukraini­ans es­cap­ing Rus­sia’s dev­as­tat­ing in­va­sion of their home­land.

But the 27-year-old, who fled Cameroon dur­ing its on­go­ing con­flict, can’t help but won­der what would hap­pen if the mil­lions flee­ing that East­ern Eu­rope na­tion were a dif­fer­ent hue.

As the U.S. pre­pares to wel­come tens of thou­sands of Ukraini­ans flee­ing war, the coun­try con­tin­ues to de­port scores of African and Caribbean refugees back to un­sta­ble and vi­o­lent home­lands where they’ve faced rape, tor­ture, ar­bi­trary ar­rest and oth­er abus­es.

They do not care about a Black man,” the Colum­bus, Ohio, res­i­dent said, re­fer­ring to U.S. politi­cians. “The dif­fer­ence is re­al­ly clear. They know what is hap­pen­ing over there, and they have de­cid­ed to close their eyes and ears.”

Tebah’s con­cerns echo protests against the swift ex­pul­sions of Hait­ian refugees cross­ing the bor­der this sum­mer with­out a chance to seek asy­lum, not to men­tion the frosty re­cep­tion African and Mid­dle East­ern refugees have faced in west­ern Eu­rope com­pared with how those na­tions have en­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly em­braced dis­placed Ukraini­ans.

In March, when Pres­i­dent Joe Biden made a se­ries of an­nounce­ments wel­com­ing 100,000 Ukrain­ian refugees, grant­i­ng Tem­po­rary Pro­tect­ed Sta­tus to an­oth­er 30,000 al­ready in the U.S. and halt­ing Ukrain­ian de­por­ta­tions, two De­mo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers seized on the mo­ment to call for sim­i­lar hu­man­i­tar­i­an con­sid­er­a­tions for Haitians.

There is every rea­son to ex­tend the same lev­el of com­pas­sion,” U.S. Reps. Ayan­na Press­ley, of Mass­a­chu­setts, and Mondaire Jones, of New York, wrote to the ad­min­is­tra­tion, not­ing more than 20,000 Haitians have been de­port­ed de­spite con­tin­ued in­sta­bil­i­ty af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Haiti’s pres­i­dent and a pow­er­ful earth­quake this sum­mer.

Cameroon­ian ad­vo­cates have sim­i­lar­ly ratch­eted up their calls for hu­man­i­tar­i­an re­lief, protest­ing in front of the Wash­ing­ton res­i­dence of Home­land Se­cu­ri­ty Sec­re­tary Ale­jan­dro May­orkas and the of­fices of lead­ing mem­bers of Con­gress this month.

Their calls come as hun­dreds of thou­sands in Cameroon have been dis­placed in re­cent years by the coun­try’s civ­il war be­tween its French-speak­ing gov­ern­ment and Eng­lish-speak­ing sep­a­ratists, at­tacks by the ter­ror­ist group Boko Haram and oth­er re­gion­al con­flicts.

The ad­vo­ca­cy group Hu­man Rights Watch, in a Feb­ru­ary re­port, found many Cameroo­ni­ans de­port­ed from the U.S. suf­fered per­se­cu­tion and hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions up­on re­turn­ing there.

Tebah, who is a lead­ing mem­ber of the Cameroon Amer­i­can Coun­cil, an ad­vo­ca­cy group or­ga­niz­ing protests this month, said that’s a fate he hopes to avoid.

Hail­ing from the coun­try’s Eng­lish-speak­ing north­west, he said he was brand­ed a sep­a­ratist and ap­pre­hend­ed by the gov­ern­ment be­cause of his ac­tivism as a col­lege stu­dent. Tebah said he man­aged to es­cape, as many Cameroo­ni­ans have, by fly­ing to Latin Amer­i­ca, trekking over­land to the U.S.-Mex­i­co bor­der and pe­ti­tion­ing for asy­lum in 2019.

“I will be held in prison, tor­tured and even killed if I am de­port­ed,” he said. “I’m very scared. As a hu­man, my life mat­ters too.”

The De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­ri­ty, which over­sees TPS and oth­er hu­man­i­tar­i­an pro­grams, de­clined to re­spond to the com­plaints of racism in Amer­i­can im­mi­gra­tion pol­i­cy. It al­so de­clined to say whether it was weigh­ing grant­i­ng TPS to Cameroo­ni­ans or oth­er African na­tion­als, say­ing in a writ­ten state­ment on­ly that it will “con­tin­ue to mon­i­tor con­di­tions in var­i­ous coun­tries.”

The agency not­ed, how­ev­er, that it has re­cent­ly is­sued TPS des­ig­na­tions for Haiti, So­ma­lia, Su­dan and South Su­dan — all African or Caribbean na­tions — as well as to more than 75,000 Afghans liv­ing in the U.S. af­ter the Tal­iban takeover of that Cen­tral Asian na­tion. Haitians are among the largest and longest-tenured ben­e­fi­cia­ries of TPS, with more than 40,000 cur­rent­ly on the sta­tus.

Oth­er TPS coun­tries in­clude Bur­ma, Hon­duras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Syr­ia, Venezuela and Yemen, and the ma­jor­i­ty of the near­ly 320,000 im­mi­grants with Tem­po­rary Pro­tect­ed Sta­tus hail from El Sal­vador.

Lisa Pari­sio, who helped launch Catholics Against Racism in Im­mi­gra­tion, ar­gues the pro­gram could eas­i­ly help pro­tect mil­lions more refugees flee­ing dan­ger but has his­tor­i­cal­ly been un­der­used and over-politi­cized.

TPS, which pro­vides a work per­mit and staves off de­por­ta­tion for up to 18 months, doesn’t have lim­its for how many coun­tries or peo­ple can be placed on it, said Pari­sio, who is the ad­vo­ca­cy di­rec­tor for the Catholic Le­gal Im­mi­gra­tion Net­work.

Yet for­mer Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, in his broad­er ef­forts to re­strict im­mi­gra­tion, pared down TPS, al­low­ing des­ig­na­tions for Liberia, Sier­ra Leone and Guinea in West Africa to ex­pire.

Al­though pro­grams like TPS pro­vide crit­i­cal pro­tec­tions for vul­ner­a­ble refugees, they can al­so leave many in le­gal lim­bo for years with­out pro­vid­ing a path­way to cit­i­zen­ship, said Kar­la Morales, a 24-year-old from El Sal­vador who has been on TPS near­ly her whole life.

“It’s ab­surd to con­sid­er 20 years in this coun­try tem­po­rary,” the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Boston nurs­ing stu­dent said. “We need val­i­da­tion that the work we’ve put in is ap­pre­ci­at­ed and that our lives have val­ue.”

At least in the case of Ukraine, Biden ap­pears mo­ti­vat­ed by broad­er for­eign pol­i­cy goals in Eu­rope, rather than racial bias, sug­gests María Cristi­na Gar­cía, a his­to­ry pro­fes­sor at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty in Itha­ca, New York, fo­cused on refugees and im­mi­grants.

But Tom Wong, found­ing di­rec­tor of the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion Pol­i­cy Cen­tre at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego, said the racial dis­par­i­ties couldn’t be clear­er.

The U.S. has re­spond­ed with­out hes­i­ta­tion by ex­tend­ing hu­man­i­tar­i­an pro­tec­tions to pre­dom­i­nate­ly white and Eu­ro­pean refugees,” he said. “All the while, pre­dom­i­nate­ly peo­ple of colour from Africa, the Mid­dle East, and Asia con­tin­ue to lan­guish.”

Be­sides Cameroon, im­mi­grant ad­vo­cates al­so ar­gue that Con­go and Ethiopia should qual­i­fy for hu­man­i­tar­i­an re­lief be­cause of their on­go­ing con­flicts, as should Mau­ri­ta­nia, since slav­ery is still prac­ticed there.

And they com­plain Ukrain­ian asy­lum seek­ers are be­ing ex­empt­ed from asy­lum lim­its meant to pre­vent the spread of COVID-19 while those from oth­er na­tions are be­ing turned away.

Black pain and Black suf­fer­ing do not get the same at­ten­tion,” says Sylvie Bel­lo, founder of the D.C.-based Cameroon Amer­i­can Coun­cil. “The same an­ti-Black­ness that per­me­ates Amer­i­can life al­so per­me­ates Amer­i­can im­mi­gra­tion pol­i­cy.”

Ve­ra Arnot, a Ukrain­ian in Boston who is con­sid­er­ing seek­ing TPS, says she didn’t know much about the spe­cial sta­tus un­til the war start­ed and wasn’t aware of the con­cerns from im­mi­grants of colour. But the Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic sopho­more hopes the re­lief can be ex­tend­ed to oth­er de­serv­ing na­tions.

Arnot says TPS could help her seek an off-cam­pus job with bet­ter pay, so she doesn’t have to re­ly on her fam­i­ly’s sup­port, as most in Ukraine have lost their jobs due to the war.

“Ukraini­ans as a peo­ple aren’t used to re­ly­ing on oth­ers,” she said. “We want to work. We don’t want wel­fare.”

For Tebah, who is stay­ing with rel­a­tives in Ohio, TPS would make it eas­i­er for him to open a bank ac­count, get a dri­ver’s li­cense and seek bet­ter em­ploy­ment while he awaits a de­ci­sion on his asy­lum case.

“We’ll con­tin­ue to beg, to plead,” Tebah said. “We are in dan­ger. I want to em­pha­size it. And on­ly TPS for Cameroon will help us be tak­en out of that dan­ger. It is very nec­es­sary.”


As­so­ci­at­ed Press video jour­nal­ist Patrick Or­sa­gos in Colum­bus, Ohio con­tributed to this sto­ry.