West Africans given temporary immigration protection in the US at the height of the Ebola outbreak may have to leave next May, despite fears the virus is still lurking in their homelands.
In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security gave Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone Temporary Protected Status, known as TPS. That meant people from those countries who were already living in the US could stay for 18 months; it also gave them legal status to work. Since then, TPS has been extended twice, most recently in September, when US officials granted a final reprieve to about 5,900 visitors from those countries.
But West African immigrants and their advocates are pushing the US government to extend TPS for another 18 months, because of fear that Ebola may again flare up. During the outbreak, the health care infrastructures of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia were devastated. More than 11,000 people died, according to the World Health Organization. Many of them were health care workers.
“There have been times when a country would be declared Ebola-free but then more cases are found,” said Amaha Kassa, executive director of African Communities Together, an advocacy organization in New York. “And there has been so much damage to the basic health infrastructure — health care workers were more likely to be infected. So, if people go back, are they going to get health care?”
The WHO reported that the number of health care workers in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone is less than 1 per 1,000 people.
In addition, said Kassa, many West Africans living in the US are sending their paychecks home to help with infrastructure repair. Should TPS end, he said, it would be harder for them to remain in this country and work legally.
“The members of the diaspora remitting money to their families there has been a lifeline,” he said. “The rebuilding process has only just begun, in those countries, which are still devastated. But here, they can actually earn money to send to their families.”
Under the rules of the program, enrollees must leave the US once the TPS expires. Many are reluctant to talk about their immigration status or their home countries, fearing deportation threats like the one in 2005, and the stigma of Ebola.
For Lawrence Beah, 53, who works in New York as a security guard, enrolling in the TPS program has given him the ability to legally work and support his family in Sierra Leone. He came to the US in 2014 to escape Ebola.
He would like to return, he said, but he is not sure what would await him. He pointed out that before Ebola’s rise, Sierra Leone had been recovering from an 11-year civil war.
“There is nothing in my country,” he said. “Before there was Ebola, there was war, and we do not have everything we need.”
But critics of the TPS program are concerned that people from Ebola-affected countries will remain in the US indefinitely. According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., in 2014, just before the Ebola outbreak began, there were approximately 350,000 people with TPS status in the US. In most cases, they had received that status due to natural disaster and civil war in their home nations.
“The problem with the TPS is that we have forgotten what the T stands for,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “And staying here to send money home is not the intent of the program. We can’t have countries exporting their people here to send money there, because then Americans can’t get work to support their families.”
All three countries were declared free of Ebola in January, but have had to deal with minor flare-ups since. The WHO has pledged support to help those countries rebuild their health care system and train new workers, noting that during the Ebola epidemic, efforts to quell other endemic diseases such as malaria fell by the wayside.
Mehlman said instability in West Africa is not a reason to keep immigrants from Ebola-stricken nations in the US.
“The standard for sending people back cannot be absolute perfection,” Mehlman said. “Conditions are never going to be ideal in those counties. They weren’t ideal before.”
This story was updated to include comments from Lawrence Beah.