Activist state

African refugees see racial bias as US welcomes Ukrainians


Karla Morales, of Revere, Mass., polishes a mirror while working at her family’s party supply store in the East Boston neighborhood of Boston on Sunday, March 27, 2022. Morales, who left El Salvador with her family when she was 3 years old and enjoyed Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for most of her life, says that status allowed her family to work, build a successful small business and pay taxes, but without opening the way to citizenship. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)


Wilfred Tebah does not blame the United States for quickly granting humanitarian protections to Ukrainians fleeing 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 the Eastern European nation were of a other color.

As the United States prepares to welcome tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing war, the country continues to deport dozens of African and Caribbean refugees to unstable and violent countries where they have been victims of rape, torture, arbitrary arrests and other abuses.

“They don’t care about a black man,” the Columbus, Ohio resident said, referring to American politicians. “The difference is really clear. They know what is going on there and they have decided to close their eyes and ears.

Tebah’s concerns echo protests over the rapid deportations of Haitian refugees crossing the border this summer without an opportunity to seek asylum, not to mention the chilling reception African and Middle Eastern refugees have faced in Western Europe. about how these nations have enthusiastically welcomed 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 United States and halting Ukrainian deportations, two Democratic lawmakers seized the moment to call for similar humanitarian considerations for Haitians.

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

Cameroonian defenders have also stepped up their calls for humanitarian aid, demonstrating outside the Washington residence of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and the offices of key members of Congress this month.

Their calls come as hundreds of thousands of people 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 that many Cameroonians deported from the United States had faced persecution and human rights abuses upon their return.

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

Originally from the English-speaking northwest of the country, he said he was branded a separatist and apprehended by the government because of his activism as a student. Tebah said he managed to escape, as many Cameroonians have, by flying to Latin America, traveling overland to the US-Mexico border and asking for the 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 being, my life matters too.”

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees TPS and other humanitarian programs, has refused to address complaints of racism in US immigration policy. He also declined to say whether he considered granting TPS to Cameroonians or other African nationals, saying only in a written statement that he “will continue to monitor conditions in various countries.”

The agency, however, noted that it had recently issued TPS designations for Haiti, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan – all countries in Africa or the Caribbean – as well as more than 75,000 Afghans living in the United States after the Taliban took control of the Central Asian nation. . Haitians are among the largest and oldest recipients 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 roughly 320,000 immigrants with Temporary Protected Status are from El Salvador.

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

The TPS, which provides a work permit and avoids deportation for up to 18 months, has no limit on the number of countries or people who can be placed there, said Parisio, who is the advocacy director. of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

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

While programs like TPS provide critical protections for vulnerable refugees, they can also leave many in legal limbo for years without clearing a path to citizenship, said Karla Morales, a 24-year-old Salvadoran who has been on TPS most of his life. .

“It’s absurd to think of 20 years in this country as temporary,” said the nursing student at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “We need confirmation that the work we have done 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 Center at the University of California, San Diego, said the racial disparities couldn’t be clearer.

“The United States responded without hesitation by extending humanitarian protections to primarily white and European refugees,” he said. “Meanwhile, mainly people of color from Africa, the Middle East and Asia continue to languish.”

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

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

“Black pain and black suffering don’t get the same attention,” says Sylvie Bello, founder of the DC-based Cameroon American Council. “The same anti-blackness that permeates American life also permeates American immigration policy.”

Vera Arnot, a Ukrainian from Boston who is considering applying for TPS, says she didn’t know much about special status until the war began and was unaware of the concerns of immigrants from color. But the sophomore Berklee College of Music hopes the relief can be extended to other deserving nations.

Arnot says TPS could help her find an off-campus job with better pay so she doesn’t have to rely on family support because most Ukrainians lost their jobs to the war.

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

For Tebah, who lives with relatives in Ohio, TPS would make it easier for him to open a bank account, get a driver’s license and find a better job while he waits for a decision on his application. of asylum.

“We will continue to beg, to plead,” Tebah said. “We are in danger. I want to stress that. And only TPS for Cameroon will help us out of this danger. It is very necessary.”


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