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

The call came at 4 am. Emmanuel Tabili immediately leapt out of bed, jolted awake by the thought of trouble in his home country of Cameroon, 8,000 miles away in west Africa. He was relieved to recognize a work number. It was a colleague in the struggle to gain Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for almost 40,000 Cameroonians living in the U.S., telling him to get ready for some good news for a change. April 15 would be a day to remember.

“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.

A few months after winning his own asylum case in 2018, Tabili went to work for Haitian Bridge Alliance in southern California as an advocate for Haitian and Liberian migrants. After two years, his experience led him to help form the Cameroon Advocacy Network (CAN), which was launched as an offshoot of Haitian Bridge Alliance with cofounders Guerline Jozef and Daniel Tse last year. 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.”

Within two hours of that 4 am phone call, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) issued a press release in which he announced that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas had promised that TPS for Cameroonians was going forward. 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 November and another with Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) on 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 Organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center and 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 pact signed on April 12 recently made public might explain the reversal. At the time, Tabili says there was frustration and anger toward the administration for abandoning them and leaving them in the dark as to why. “We felt demoralized because we have been fighting for this for so long.”

Six Years to Gain What Afghans and Ukrainians Received in Just Days

Advocates in the U.S. saw the need for TPS for Cameroonians starting in 2016, as tensions between English- and French-speaking forces escalated into open conflict. Tabili explained that in the first year of the conflict, more than 50,000 people were internally displaced, and in the second year, the number rose to 300,000; now it is over a million. A small number of these people made the arduous and dangerous trek to the U.S. In 2016, only 115 refugees from Cameroon were granted asylum, per the Office of Immigration Statistics Annual Flow Report, increasing to 218 in 2017. This was before Tabili came to realize he, too, would have to leave his country. He has since led a full-blown human rights effort to extend the protection that TPS should provide universally to his countrymen forced out by multiple regional conflicts painstakingly documented by Human Rights Watch in a 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.

Fueling his anxiety on the morning of April 15, the press release from DHS scheduled for release at 9 am, was delayed. 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. If granted, they can enjoy the protections for 18 months from the date DHS publishes notice in the Federal Register.

Cameroonians who come seeking asylum after April 14, 2022, will not be eligible for TPS, but Tabili thinks given the humanitarian turn, a few may feel encouraged to try 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. Granting TPS to Cameroonians was a political decision that could have come at any time, and as the years dragged on the human costs mounted.

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

In 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. A request to Sarah Loicano, the ICE public affairs officer in New Orleans, for information on their number, status under TPS, and plans for their release went unanswered by press time. On background, a reliable source informed us that the process remains the same: detainees (through an attorney) or sponsoring relatives can request supervised release from 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 the Finish Line

Returning to the moment a month prior when the advocates were demoralized, CAN and the partner organizations met to discuss next steps. Tabili remembers they spoke freely, venting their frustration and anger at what they felt was the administration’s hypocrisy. The energy was deflated, even depressed, and he was as tired as everyone else. 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. A gut-level political instinct kicked in, and he reached back to prior generations for a spark of 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. But I want to remind you that we have come a long way, and we shall not waste our good efforts because the administration is in denial. 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.”

Knowing how quickly a year and a half can pass, CAN views the 18 months as a starting point that gives the administration time to figure out what to do next. What they want and will be working toward is a clear path to citizenship for all TPS holders.

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