The Biden administration’s relatively swift move to offer immigration protections to Ukrainians in the U.S. stands in contrast to its stance toward nationals of some Central American, African, and Asian countries, prompting frustration among advocates.
Supporters of Temporary Protected Status recipients rallied outside the U.S. Capitol this week and met with lawmakers to spotlight demands for expanding the program to additional nations. Guatemala, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Congo, Guinea, Haiti, and Sierra Leone also should be designated for TPS, and the administration should renew protections for foreign nationals already benefiting from the program, advocates urged.
Immigrant, labor, and civil rights groups also pressured the Biden administration to review potential racial bias in TPS decision making.
“I came from a war torn country. I know what it’s like to flee your home,” said Daniel Tse, a founding member of the Cameroon Advocacy Network. “Humanitarian aid should be universal and equal. People are fleeing similar conditions.”
The Department of Homeland Security can grant TPS to foreign nationals in the US who can’t return safely to their home countries because of dangerous conditions like war or natural disasters. The status, which typically lasts for 18 months with the option to be extended, also confers work authorization and travel eligibility.
Most of the roughly 350,000 TPS recipients in the US as of February came from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti, and made up a sizable share of construction workers and restaurant and food service workers in some states.
Potential future attempts to remove protections for those immigrants would threaten a critical part of the workforce for those industries, employers have argued. For example, of the nearly 30,000 Salvadoran construction workers in California, nearly a quarter are protected by TPS, according to an American Immigration Council estimate.
The Trump administration sought to roll back TPS protections for several countries, prompting advocacy groups to sue. A federal district court in California in 2018 blocked the DHS from rolling back protections for those from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador, but that ruling was overturned on appeal.
The district court’s ruling remains in effect, however, because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit put on hold a request for the full court to rehear the case. The parties have since been in mediation.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has continued TPS protections for the affected countries and further expanded the program, issuing first-time protections for nationals of Venezuela and Myanmar and renewing TPS for other countries experiencing war or the effects of natural disasters.
The DHS offered Temporary Protected Status last month all Ukrainians in the US as of April 11—one of several humanitarian options the administration has offered to those displaced by the Russian invasion of that country. The administration also renewed protections for Sudanese nationals and announced forthcoming designations for Afghanistan and Cameroon.
Yet the speed with which Ukraine received TPS designation made for a stark contrast to the years of advocacy it took to win protection for Cameroonian nationals, said Lora Adams, campaign coordinator for the TPS-DED Administrative Advocacy Coalition.
“It feels almost arbitrary which countries are getting emphasis at which time,” she told Bloomberg Law.
The DHS selects countries for TPS in consultation with the State Department. But that process “is kind of a black box,” Adams said.
“It seems like the process of determining conditions has gotten inexplicably stretched for some countries in a way that we don’t quite understand,” she said.
In that vein, 144 advocacy groups sent a letterto the Biden administration this week raising concerns that majority Black and Brown countries are being denied TPS protections, or the process has been delayed. The letter called for an investigation into the DHS’s decision-making process.
The agency has acted swiftly to extend those designations before, including to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
“From outside it’s really hard to know exactly what the thinking is and what biases may be at play,” she said.
Temporary Protected Status designations are decided by the DHS after careful consideration and consultation with interagency partners, a spokeswoman for the agency said in a statement provided to Bloomberg Law.
“Following such consultation and based upon the careful consideration of country conditions that prevent nationals and habitual residents without nationality from returning safely,” the agency has offered new TPS protections or renewed those in place for “a number of countries,” she said. “DHS applies the statutory bases for designation of TPS without discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity.”
In addition to seeking deportation protections for nationals of more countries, TPS holders have also called for lawmakers to address the long-term status of recipients who have been in the US for years.
Even when countries are designated for those protections, it can be difficult for immigrants to plan their lives 18 months at a time with no guarantee of permanent status in the U.S., Gelatt said.
That uncertainty makes planning difficult for employers as well, advocates have argued. A coalition of business and religious groups in recent months called for long-term solutions for TPS holders as part of immigration legislation that could receive bipartisan support.
Congressional Democrats last year also sought to create a path to citizenship for TPS holders through a parliamentary process known as reconciliation that would require only a simple majority for passage in the Senate. But passage of immigration fixes have been stymied by rulings from the Senate parliamentarian and disagreements among some Senate Democrats over a social spending bill that would include the provisions.
Fausto Canalas, a TPS recipient from Honduras, traveled to Washington this week to press lawmakers to expand eligibility for Hondurans and provide a path to long-term status.
“I’ve been here for 25 years and think all of us deserve a permanent status,” Canalas said in an interview at the rally of TPS advocates.
In the short-term, the Biden administration could offer more clarity to Central American migrants by extending TPS designations set to expire later this year, said Claudia Flores, associate director for policy and strategy at the Center for American Progress.
“We want to get some certainty that the government is in fact going to extend these protections,” she said.