By Mila Koumpilova Star Tribune
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and three fellow House Democrats have introduced a bill that would extend a program which will allow natives of three West African countries (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) affected by the 2014 Ebola epidemic to stay in the United States regardless of their immigration status.
Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea expired this week, affecting as many as 1,000 people in the Twin Cities Sizable West African community by some estimates. The Obama administration announced the end of the program last fall, concluding that conditions in the three countries had improved sufficiently.
In recent weeks, members of the Minnesota congressional delegation appealed to the Trump administration to extend the program, arguing that the countries’ economies and healthcare systems are still reeling from the Ebola crisis long after they were declared Ebola-free. Now, Ellison and his colleagues are taking the unusual step of attempting to lengthen the program — traditionally the purview of the executive branch — at the Capitol.
“Now is not the time to force members of our community to return to vulnerable countries already struggling to provide for their citizens,” the Fifth District congressman said in a statement.
Critics of Temporary Protected Status say the U.S. government tends to extend the program long after upheaval from war and natural disasters has died down, giving a reprieve to some immigrants who entered illegally or overstayed visitor visas. They were caught by surprise when the previous administration announced last fall that it was giving West Africans a final six months to prepare for going home. This week, the Trump administration gave a similar final six-month extension to immigrants from Haiti, who qualified for TPS after a devastating earthquake in their homeland in 2010.
Nationally, about 5,900 people from the three Ebola-affected East African countries received TPS. Immigration authorities do not have a breakdown by state, but the Twin Cities west metro hosts one of the largest West African enclaves in the country. Local West Africans said a majority of program recipients — some who came to stay with relatives during the epidemic and others who had lived in the United States for years — will probably stick around and slip into the immigration shadows.
“We are very excited about this huge opportunity,” said Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of African Immigrant Services, a West African nonprofit. “People thought this was a lost cause, but the bill revives hope.”
Earlier this month, 45 members of Congress wrote Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, urging him to extend the program for eighteen months. Ellison’s West African Ebola Relief Act legislates the same request.
Kiatamba acknowledges the bill’s prospects are murky in a deeply divided Congress where immigration-related legislation has repeatedly floundered in recent years. But he hopes the proposal might help persuade the Trump administration to give West Africans at least a brief extension, “buying more time for this bill to see where it goes.”
He said he has fielded questions from community members who wonder if they might break the law and get in trouble with immigration authorities if they continue to host relatives and friends with expired TPS in their homes. He said his organization and others are launching a community campaign to lobby members of Congress to back Ellison’s bill. “The role of our community now is to step up and support this,” Kiatamba said.
Source: News Now/ The Star Tribune