Wilfred Tebah is not defaulting on the United States to quickly provide humanitarian protection to Ukrainians escaping Russia’s devastating invasion of their homeland.
But the 27-year-old, who fled Cameroon during the ongoing conflict, can not help but wonder what would happen if the millions who fled the Eastern European nation had a different color.
As the United States prepares to welcome Tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing war continue to deport dozens of African and Caribbean refugees back to unstable and violent homelands, where they have been subjected to rape, torture, arbitrary arrest and other abuses.
“They don’t care about a black man,” the Columbus, Ohio resident said, referring to U.S. politicians. “The difference is really clear. They know what’s going on over there and they’ve decided to close their eyes and ears.”
Tebah’s concerns echo protests against the rapid deportations of Haitian refugees crossing the border this summer without a chance to seek asylum, not to mention the frosty reception of African and Middle Eastern refugees has been subjected to in Western Europe compared to how these nations have enthusiastically embraced displaced Ukrainians.
In March, when President Joe Biden made a series of announcements welcoming 100,000 Ukrainians refugees, providing temporary protected status to an additional 30,000 already in the United States. and halting Ukrainian deportations, two Democratic lawmakers are currently pursuing to call for similar humanitarian considerations for the 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.and notes that more than 20,000 Haitians have been deported despite continued instability following the assassination of Haiti’s president and a powerful earthquake this summer.
Cameroonian advocates have similarly sharpened their calls for humanitarian aid and protested in front of their home security minister Alejandro Mayorkas’ residence in Washington and the offices of senior members of Congress this month.
Their call comes 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.
Advocate group Human Rights Watch, in a February reportfound that many Cameroonians deported from the United States were subjected to persecution and human rights violations when they returned there.
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.
Hailing from the country’s English-speaking north-west, he said he was branded a separatist and apprehended by the government because of his activism as a university student. Tebah said he managed to escape, as many Cameroonians have done, by flying to Latin America, wandering overland to the U.S.-Mexico border and requesting asylum in 2019.
“I will be imprisoned, tortured and even killed if I am deported,” he said. “I’m very scared. As a human being, my life also means something.”
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees TPS and other humanitarian programs, declined to respond to complaints of racism in U.S. immigration policy. It also declined to say whether it was considering giving TPS to Cameroonians or other African nationals, saying only in a written statement that it would “continue to monitor conditions in different countries.”
However, the agency noted 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. lived in the United States after the Taliban took over the Central Asian nation. Haitians are among the largest and longest-serving recipients of TPS, with more than 40,000 currently on 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 come from El Salvador.
Lisa Parisio, who helped launch Catholics against racism in immigration, claims the program could easily help protect millions of refugees who fled danger but have historically been underutilized and over-politicized.
TPS, which grants a work permit and holds deportation for up to 18 months, has no limits on how many countries or individuals 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 curb immigration reduced TPS and allowed designations for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in West Africa to expire.
Although programs like TPS provide critical protection to vulnerable refugees, they can also leave many in legal limbo for years without paving the way for citizenship, said Karla Morales, a 24-year-old from El Salvador who has been at TPS almost all her life. .
“It’s absurd to consider 20 years in this country as temporary,” said University of Massachusetts Boston nursing student. “We need validation that the work we have put into ourselves is valued and that our lives have value.”
At least in the case of Ukraine, Biden appears to be motivated by broader foreign policy goals in Europe rather than racial imbalances, suggests María Cristina García, a history professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, focusing 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 differences could not be clearer.
“The United States has responded without hesitation by extending humanitarian protection to predominantly white and European refugees,” he said. “Mostly colored people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia continue to languish.”
In addition to Cameroon, immigrant advocates also argue that Congo and Ethiopia should qualify for humanitarian aid because of their ongoing conflicts, as does Mauritania, as slavery is still practiced there.
And they are complaining that Ukrainian asylum seekers are being exempted from the asylum borders intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while being rejected by other nations.
“Black pain and black suffering do not 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 in Boston who is considering applying for TPS, says she did not know much about the special status before the war started and that she was not aware of the concerns of colored immigrants. But the Berklee College of Music sophomore is hoping the relief effort can be extended to other deserving nations.
Arnot says TPS could help her apply for a job off campus with better pay so she does not have to rely on her family’s support as most in Ukraine have lost their jobs due to the war.
“Ukrainians as a people are not used to trusting others,” she said. “We want to work. We do not 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 seek better employment while awaiting a decision in his asylum case.
“We will continue to beg, to pray,” Tebah said. “We are in danger. I would like to emphasize that. And only TPS for Cameroon will help us to be taken out of that danger. It is very necessary.”
Associated Press video journalist Patrick Orsagos of Columbus, Ohio contributed to this story.