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Trump administration extends, but does not redesignate, protected status for hundreds of Somalis

A temporary fix.

The Trump administration announced this week that  it would end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Somali refugees in September 2018, leaving the approximately 500 Somalis living legally in the United States in a precarious position: find another way to stay in the country or return to Somalia. (Photo credit: Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
The Trump administration announced this week that it would end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Somali refugees in September 2018, leaving the approximately 500 Somalis living legally in the United States in a precarious position: find another way to stay in the country or return to Somalia. (Photo credit: Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Trump administration announced Thursday it will extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Somali immigrants through the September 2018 deadline until March 2020, allowing the approximately 500 Somalis living legally in the United States to breathe a sigh of relief. Without the extension, they would be in a precarious position: find another way to stay in the country or return to Somalia.

“The decision to extend TPS for Somalia was made after a review of the conditions upon which the country’s designation is based. Following careful consideration of available information, including recommendations received as part of an inter-agency consultation process, the Secretary determined that the conditions supporting Somalia’s designation for TPS continue to exist,” a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement read. “Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be extended.”

Simply renewing Somalia’s TPS status will not protect Somalis in the United States indefinitely, however. Without a redesignation, many Somalis remain at risk of forcible return to a country with never-ending conflicts.

“Continuing to grant TPS will not solve the conflict in Somalia but is the least we can do for the Somalis who have arrived in the US seeking safety and protection, and we are grateful the US has acknowledged that conditions in Somalia are unfit for the return of TPS holders,” Scott Paul, head of humanitarian policy at Oxfam America, said in a statement. “But while the decision provides a temporary respite for the nearly 500 Somalis in the US currently with TPS, it does nothing to help other Somalis in the US who cannot apply for TPS.”

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“Oxfam is calling on Congress to pass legislation granting Somali TPS holders permanent residency status and a path to citizenship so that they can continue to safely live and work in the US without fear of return to the devastating conditions in Somalia.”

The administration similarly extended, but did not redesignate, TPS protections for South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

The administration previously ended TPS protections for 200,000 Salvadorans in January this year. It also terminated existing TPS designations for Haiti, Nepal, and Nicaragua (protections end in 2019), as well as Honduras (protections end in 2020) and Sudan (protections end in November this year).

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has granted TPS designation to a handful of nations since the 1990s. TPS acts as a type of humanitarian immigration program — much like asylum or refugee resettlement — and offers protection to individuals who have fled violence, natural disaster, or conditions that prevent them from being able to return to their home country. The provisional immigration program has granted work authorization to recipients, allowing them to stay in the United States legally for decades. The program does not grant permanent legal status.

Somalia was originally designated for TPS in 1991 and was extended and redesignated in 2012. At the time, the U.S. government cited Somalia’s widespread violence, specifically al-Shabaab’s frequent attacks on military and civilian targets, in justifying its decision. At the time of the last TPS extension for Somalis, in 2017, around 40 percent of Somalia’s population was in need of humanitarian assistance and over one million were internally displaced.

Famine and malnutrition continues to plague Somalia, with at least 1.1 million people suffering from acute food insecurity. A severe drought exacerbated by El Niño conditions has only made conditions worse.

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It is for these reasons that 83 members of Congress signed a letter earlier this month, urging DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to both redesignate and extend Somalia’s TPS designation for 18 months, from September 17, 2018 through March 17, 2020.

“Given the Administration’s assessment that the situation on the ground is still too dangerous to move our Embassy into Somalia and nearly half of the population continues to face food insecurity, it would be inhumane and irresponsible to force Somalis in the TPS program to leave their homes and communities here in the United States,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN).

During a call with reporters this week, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a Muslim member of Congress and a Somali immigrant herself, echoed those comments, saying the situation in Somalia was far too dangerous for the administration to begin sending people back.

“We know the current situation in Somalia isn’t ideal to have people go back, and if TPS expires my constituents will be faced with that reality,” she said, referring to the large Somali population that currently resides in her home district in Minneapolis. 

“When they left, they were facing conditions of war and drought and other things. I myself have gone to Somalia a couple times and have seen the conditions and elements, like the presence of Al-Qaeda, that make it hard for someone to re-integrate themselves into the community,” she added. “I think it’s important that we fight to keep families here, because we understand the kind of destruction it creates in their families and communities.”

The threat of al-Shabaab has many Somali immigrants worried, particularly those who’ve had run-ins with the extremist group in the past. One man told a local CBS station in Minnesota that he came to the United States in 2009 after being tortured by al-Shabaab militants, and was able to find protection under TPS.

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“They tortured me for some time, they tried to brainwash me, but luckily I escaped and was able to come to the United States,” he said.

The Trump administration’s decision to not re-designate the humanitarian program is not necessarily surprising given the president’s history of linking Somali immigrants to terrorism.

During a 2016 campaign rally in Minneapolis shortly before the election, then-candidate Trump told a crowd of supporters that he would block refugee resettlement in the United States, citing Minnesota’s “problems” with Somali immigrants.

“Here in Minnesota you have seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state, without your knowledge, without your support or approval, and with some of them then joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over the country and all over the world,” Trump said. “…You’ve suffered enough in Minnesota.”

Trump appeared to be referring to a lone incident at a shopping mall in St. Cloud a few months earlier, in which a member of the local Somali-American community entered the building and began stabbing people indiscriminately, causing several non-life-threatening injuries. The man was later described as a U.S. citizen who had immigrated to the United States many years earlier, at the age of 2.