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Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced on Monday that he is extending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) another 18 months for people from Somalia living in the United States. Mayorkas also said the U.S. would re-designate Somalia as a place too dangerous for nationals currently residing in the U.S. to return.
The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) decision to re-designate Somalia for the first time since 2012 means that Somali nationals who arrived in the U.S. at any point in the last nine years will be able to gain protected status, employment authorization, drivers licenses, and more.
A DHS statement said that Mayorkas made his decisions after “careful consideration of the ongoing armed conflict and extraordinary and temporary conditions in Somalia. Three decades of conflict in Somalia, along with natural disasters and disease outbreaks, have worsened an already severe humanitarian crisis.”
The decision is a source of relief for Somali nationals with TPS, or no legal status, living in the U.S. They now gain a temporary reprieve from fear that they could be forced to leave families, communities, and jobs in this country, and need to return to Somalia.
CAIR Minnesota deputy director Mohamad Ibrahim applauded the move. “We know that there are a lot of parents that were facing really difficult decisions to leave family members because they didn’t have the status, or to take their children to really dangerous circumstances in Somalia,” Mohamad said. “We’re glad that they’re able to make this decision now.”
As its name indicates, TPS status is only temporary and does not include a pathway to citizenship. Advocacy groups and political leaders are adamant that the program is not a substitute for a permanent solution for holders. Nonetheless, it does give them privileges and a critical measure of security against deportation.
Decision affects hundreds of Somali TPS holders across Minnesota
“TPS is important because it provides blanket protection for anybody from Somalia,” James Rasmussen, a fellow at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said. “Folks might individually seek asylum, but TPS is kind of a safeguard for people who might slip through the cracks of the asylum system because of systemic racism or other issues.”
According to the National Immigration Forum, more than 200 Somali TPS holders were living in Minnesota as of November 2018. Mohamad said that those holders are spread across the state, from the Twin Cities to the St. Cloud area to southern Minnesota.
Minnesota has the highest proportion of Somali TPS holders in the country, as well as the largest Somali community in the U.S.
According to the DHS, the re-authorization will allow 447 Somali nationals currently benefiting from TPS to apply to stay in the country through March 17, 2023, while roughly 100 Somali nationals will be able to apply for TPS for the first time.
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR Minnesota, said he believes that the DHS number is an undercount, and that there may be more than 1,000 Somalis living in the United States who could be positioned to take advantage of the re-designation decision.
Somali TPS holders faced a long period of uncertainty over their status in the buildup to Monday’s announcement. The Trump administration tried to do away with TPS protections entirely, but that effort stalled in court.
In may, the Biden administration reinstated TPS status for Haiti and Myanmar, but not Somalia. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and three other Democratic members of the House wrote to Mayorkas asking him to extend TPS protections and re-designate Somalia ahead of a July 19 statutory deadline. They noted that not doing so “would have devastating consequences for U.S.-citizen children of Somali TPS holders.”
Ilhan, who was born in Somalia and gained asylum with her family as a child in the United States, heralded the news on Twitter, calling the DHS decision a “major victory.”
Proposals to build a pathway from TPS to citizenship
She also called on the Senate to pass the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, which would provide TPS holders with a pathway to citizenship. President Biden has also repeatedly called on the Senate to pass the bill, a call he repeated with the “greatest urgency” after a judge ruled last week that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is unlawful.
Ilhan and other advocates believe that the government should take TPS holders—some of whom have been in the United States for decades—out of limbo and give them the chance to become citizens in the country where they have built their lives. There are over 400,000 TPS holders in the country as a whole.
“Obviously we’d be hopeful for Somalia to have favorable conditions, but as [TPS holders] continue to build their lives here, and are continuing to invest in and be a part of their community, we want to be sure that they can at least have the option if they want to stay,” Mohamad said.
“We don’t want to continually have these conversations,” he continued.
Somalia was first designated for the TPS program in 1991. Because of the political and public health situations in the country, it may be unsafe to return to for the foreseeable future. Less than 1 percent of Somalis are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Once a Federal Register notice of the extension and re-designation is posted, current TPS holders from Somalia will have a 60-day window to re-register with the program. Those newly eligible for TPS will have 180 days to submit their application materials.
Rasmussen said that he is hopeful that similar TPS designations will follow for other African countries like Cameroon, Mauritania, and Ethiopia. In the meantime, he encouraged Somali nationals affected by the TPS extension or re-designation to get legal representation to navigate the application process.
“TPS is a key piece of American humanitarian immigration law,” he said. “I do think it’s the right decision.”