Ukrainians Gained Protected Status in Days. It Took Years for Cameroonians.

The call came at 4 AM. Emmanuel Tabili jumped from bed and was jolted awake by thoughts of trouble in Cameroon. It is 8,000 miles from his home in Cameroon. He was relieved that he recognized his work number. It was a friend who was helping him to obtain Temporary Protected status (TPS) for nearly 40,000 Cameroonians residing in the U.S. He told him to be ready for good news and a positive outlook. April 15 would be a memorable day.

“They said it looks like there’s some action, like it’s going to be positive, and that inside sources said it was going to be approved,” he told Truthout. TPS, which was created by Congress in the Immigration Act of 1990, was Tabili’s (and the activists who preceded him) prized goal because those who gain it become authorized to work in the U.S., are free to travel and, most significantly, are protected from deportation.

Tabili started working at the Haitian Bridge Alliance, southern California, as an advocate of Liberian and Haitian migrants. His experience led him to form the Cameroon Advocacy Network(CAN) was founded last year as an offshoot from Haitian Bridge Alliance by cofounders Guerline Jozef, and Daniel Tse. Since then, he’s crossed state lines to Washington, D.C. 20 times to impress his message on officials and to speak at rallies as an “impacted person.”

Two hours after that 4 AM phone call, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D. Maryland) issued a press statement in which he stated that Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), had promised that TPS would be implemented for Cameroonians. Van Hollen, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy, had written two bicameral letters to President Biden in recent months — the first with Rep. Karen Bass (D-California) in NovemberAnother with Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin March 23 — calling for TPS for Cameroonians.

Encouraged by the morning’s momentum, nonetheless, Tabili stayed cool. “I didn’t want to be rash about it,” he said, “because there were other times I had raised my hopes, even prepared a thank you message, but it never got released.”

The last such occasion was a month earlier when the quick action taken by the administration on TPS for Afghans and Ukrainians made advocates’ complaints of anti-Black bias in the dispensing of immigration protections all too credible. After a full-court press on what they thought were all the right levers, taken in concert with their partner organizations — Haitian Bridge Alliance, CASA, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, United Africa OrganizationThe Southern Poverty Law CenterAnd Amnesty International USA — they were so close they could smell the whiff of victory.

“But at the last minute, the administration took a total U-turn,” he recalled, “and it killed our dream.” CAN and the partner organizations may never know precisely why things went south, though some now surmise it may have been related to secret talks between the government of Cameroon and Russia about forming an alliance. A defense pactThe reversal may have been explained by the recent public disclosure of a signed document dated April 12. Tabili claims that there was anger and frustration at the administration for abandoning them, and they left them in the dark about why. “We felt demoralized because we have been fighting for this for so long.”

Six Years to Gain What Afghans & Ukrainians Received in Less Than a Day

TPS for Cameroonians was identified by advocates in the U.S. in 2016 as tensions between English and French-speaking forces escalated to open conflict. Tabili explained that the conflict started in 2016 and more than 50,000 people were displaced. The number rose to 300,000. In the second year, it was over a million. A few of these people made the dangerous and difficult trek to the U.S., but not many. According to the Office of Immigration Statistics Annual Report 2016, only 115 Cameroonian refugees were granted asylum. This number rose to 218 in 2017. This was before Tabili realized that he too would need to leave Cameroon. Since then, he has led a full-blown human right effort to extend the protection TPS should provide to all his countrymen who have been forced from their country by multiple regional conflicts. This was documented in detail by Human Rights Watch in a horrifyingly terrifying. report.

“The difficulties of the journey from Cameroon test your humanity, test every part of you,” Tabili said. “You go through countries where you don’t speak the language, where you are assaulted, maybe raped. Your property is stolen, you experience racist slurs, all of this, just in the hopes of making it to the U.S.” Holding degrees in both political science and foreign relations and diplomacy, and being involuntarily schooled in the cruelty of the U.S. immigration system during 11 months of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention in Georgia, Tabili was both primed for the policy battle and steeled against the system’s resistance to change, no matter how just.

The DHS press release, which was scheduled to be released at 9 a.m. on April 15, was delayed, further fueling his anxiety. Tabili recalled that it was only when it was posted two hours later that he allowed himself to feel the elation of victory — with a stroke of a pen, every Cameroonian foreign national already in the U.S. on April 14, 2022, was now eligible to apply for TPS. They will be granted protections for up to 18 months after DHS publishes the notice in the Federal Register.

Cameroonians who seek asylum after April 14, 2022 are not eligible for TPS. But Tabili thinks that given the humanitarian turn, some may feel encouraged anyway. Colleagues in D.C. did pop a bottle of champagne, but as with any longed-for change, no matter how positive, when it finally arrives, it’s often tinged with a taste of the bittersweet. Cameroonians were granted TPS at any time. However, the human cost of this decision grew over the years.

“I don’t know how I can really describe the emotions that came with it, because the delay in TPS for [Cameroonians]Many lives were lost. Those we know and those that we don’t know,” he explained. “The people that were deported, we cannot account for many of them.”

August 2021 Truthout spoke to a Cameroonian asylum seeker, Divine Tikum Kem, who had been forcibly deported from Louisiana and was the subject of a formal complaint brought against DHS, the Department of Justice, ICE, and other officials by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. Kem said then: “I lost my fight [referring to his deportation]. Today, whatever we are fighting for is for other people not to be terrorized by what we went through — that no other Black migrant should go through this again in this century. I believe my cry can be heard; I pray my voice will not cease.”

Tabili’s thoughts were also with the Cameroonians still scattered throughout the country held in ICE detention, a number he estimates to be somewhere between 300 to 600. Secretary Mayorkas’s announcement did not speak to their fates. Sarah Loicano, ICE’s New Orleans public affairs officer, was not able provide any information regarding their numbers, status under TPS or plans for their release. A reliable source told us that the process is the same: relatives who sponsor detainees or through an attorney can request supervised release by ICE.

“It also hurts, you know, to think of all the people who have been living in fear,” Tabili added, “and who have not been fully productive because someday someone could knock on your door and take everything from you, and send you back to the misery you came from.”

A Second Wind for the Short Strokes to Finish Line

CAN and its partner organizations regrouped to discuss next steps. Tabili remembers they spoke freely, venting their frustration and anger at what they felt was the administration’s hypocrisy. He was exhausted and had lost his energy. But giving up would mean turning off the lights and hopes of the Cameroonians who needed protection and saw CAN’s platform as the stepping stone to get there. He felt a deep political instinct and looked back at previous generations to find inspiration.

“My grandmom Lya used to say that things get really difficult when there is a significant breakthrough,” he remembers telling others at the meeting. “And it is usually very easy for people to give up at that point. I want to remind people that we have come quite a ways and will not be let down by the administration. We will braze up and fight again like never before.”

According to a fact sheet published by the Pew Research Center in January 2022, Biden’s large immigration bill includes a proposal for a somewhat streamlined path to citizenship for TPS recipients: “The proposal would allow TPS holders who meet certain conditions to apply for citizenship three years after receiving a green card, which is two years earlier than usual for green-card holders.”

CAN understands how quickly a year can pass. Therefore, they view the 18 months as a starting place that allows the administration to plan what the next steps will be. All TPS holders should have a clear path to citizenship. This is what they want and will strive for.

“It would be unfair if after 18 months people were sent back to the same conditions they fled,” says Tabili.