Hundreds of Somalis who fled violence and famine in their home country could be forced to leave if the Trump administration ends a special immigration program that has allowed them to live and work here legally.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will decide by Thursday whether it will extend temporary legal protections to approximately 250 Somalis who sought refuge in the United States, including some who have been living in this country for nearly three decades. A majority of those who would be affected live in Minnesota, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Somali-Americans.
The special designation for Somalia was first approved by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 in response to a brutal civil war, and has since been extended 22 times under multiple presidents. Known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, the designation has shielded many Somalis from deportation and enabled them to build families and businesses here.
Ending the program will force those migrant families into an agonizing decision: leave the country or risk becoming illegal immigrants facing deportation. Many TPS holders are married to legal immigrants and have children who are U.S. citizens, which means some Somali families would be forced to separate if the special status is not extended.
Immigration advocates warned that many Somalis facing loss of their protected status would recede into the shadows, like the roughly 12 million immigrants in the United States illegally. Those returning to Somalia from Minnesota would face a bleak future in a country still stricken by armed conflict and a devastating drought, said immigration advocates.
“Terminating TPS would essentially be a death sentence” for Somalis forced to return, said Mustafa Jumale, co-founder of the Black Immigrant Collective, an advocacy group for black immigrants and their families, at a news conference Tuesday. “Given the option of going back to face certain violence, many would choose to become undocumented.”
It is widely expected that the Trump administration will rescind Somalia’s special status, based on the president’s past comments about Somali refugees and his increasingly hard-line stance on immigration. Shortly before the 2016 election, Trump singled out Somalis during a trip to Minnesota, saying large numbers of Somali refugees were coming in to the state without proper vetting and were spreading extremist views.
“Everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota,” Trump said at a campaign stop in Minnesota.
An escape from conflict
The TPS program was designed to help people from countries wracked by armed conflicts, natural disasters and other forms of civil strife in their home countries.
But it has come under harsh scrutiny from members of the Trump administration, who have argued that it was never meant to be a long-term solution for immigrants coming to this country. The Department of Homeland Security has already revoked temporary protected status for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from seven countries, including El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Liberia, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan. All of these immigrant groups were given more than a year to leave.
“If you were betting, then you would bet that this administration will terminate TPS” for Somalia, said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. “We have seen countries with endemic violence as well as natural disasters be terminated that are nowhere near ready to resume welcoming of people who have been out of the countries.”
The armed conflict in Somalia continues to exact a heavy toll — damaging infrastructure, displacing millions of people, and impeding access to humanitarian relief, according to a 2017 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The U.N. documented 2,078 civilian deaths and 2,507 injuries from armed conflict between January 2016 and October 2017. About 60 percent of the casualties were attributed to the Somali Islamic terror group al-Shabab.
Last October, Somalia experienced one of the worst terrorist attacks in its history, when more than 500 people were killed in twin bomb blasts in the capital city, Mogadishu. Many of the bodies were burnt or mutilated beyond recognition, according to press reports. Then in March of this year, three explosions over four days left a trail of carnage in and around Mogadishu, killing nearly 20 people and injuring dozens of others, as Islamic militants unleashed a new wave of attacks.
As recently as January 2017, the Department of Homeland Security extended TPS for Somalia, saying the nation “continues to experience a complex protracted emergency that is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.” Approximately 5 million people — over 40 percent of the total population of about 11 million — were in need of humanitarian assistance, and there are an estimated 1.1 million internally displaced people, the agency said in its explanation for extending TPS.
“If anything, the situation has only gotten worse,” Keller said.
Warning against travel
The U.S. State Department has also issued a travel advisory for Somalia, saying violent crime, including kidnapping and murder, are widespread throughout the country. The federal agency recommended that those who decide to visit Somalia should first make a will, establish a family member to serve as a “point of contact” with potential hostage-takers, and to leave DNA samples in case remains need to be identified.
On Monday, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, sent a letter urging the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security to extend TPS status for Somalia, citing the long-standing armed conflict, which they argued has compromised Somalis’ access to food and humanitarian relief.
“Somalia is still a conflict-ridden area,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “For people who are returning and have not built strong ties, they easily become vulnerable to attacks by terrorist groups.”
If the Department of Homeland Security rescinds temporary protected status for Somalia, the protections now in effect would expire on Sept. 17.