Amid civil war, Biden administration grants immigration relief to Ethiopians

The Biden administration on Friday announced that Ethiopian nationals in the United States will become eligible to apply for work permits and deferral from deportation in light of the East African nation’s ongoing civil war.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas designated Ethiopia for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a program that allows nationals of a country undergoing human-made or natural disasters to stay and work in the United States.

Ethiopia’s civil war is the largest ongoing conflict in the world, with more than a million Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

“The United States recognizes the ongoing armed conflict and the extraordinary and temporary conditions engulfing Ethiopia, and DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] is committed to providing temporary protection to those in need,” Mayorkas said in a statement.

Although Ethiopia has been host to ethnic strife, famine and other humanitarian disasters, it is the first time the country has been designated for TPS.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) celebrated the designation, saying, “Ethiopia’s spiraling armed conflict is the exact reason why we created the TPS program.”

“President Biden is absolutely right in granting Ethiopian nationals long-overdue temporary deportation protections as their country faces wave after wave of unprecedented violence and upheaval that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Menendez said.

With the designation, Ethiopian nationals in the United States as of Thursday will be allowed to apply for TPS protections. Ethiopian nationals who travel to the United States as of Friday are still subject to deportation.

With the designation, Ethiopia joins 15 other countries with TPS, including Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Nepal and Yemen.

The Ethiopian immigrant population in the United States grew from around 10,000 people in 1980 to around 180,000 in 2014, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

The institute said that immigration from Ethiopia particularly accelerated after the year 2000, primarily through refugee and family reunification channels.

Ethiopians will be allowed to apply for protections under the 18-month TPS designation regardless of their immigration status.

“Ethiopian nationals currently residing in the U.S. who cannot safely return due to conflict-related violence and a humanitarian crisis involving severe food shortages, flooding, drought, and displacement, will be able to remain and work in the United States until conditions in their home country improve,” Mayorkas said.

While some TPS designations are almost automatically renewed by DHS, 12 countries, or parts of those countries, have previously been designated for TPS and later removed from the program.

TPS beneficiaries are mostly barred from applying for any other immigration status, so longtime TPS holders depend on continuous redesignation to continue to work and avoid deportation, regardless of how long they’ve lived in the United States.

“Beyond this critical designation, we also encourage Members of Congress to use the numerous bills before them to provide lasting stability for other TPS holders who have no clear path to lawful permanent residency and remain in revolving legal limbo,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

The current Ethiopian civil war is an extension of a longstanding ethnic conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea that has put more than 10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. 

“Ethiopia has been plunged into a devastating civil war, making return for Ethiopian nationals a potentially fatal prospect, particularly for those of the Tigrayan minority. Armed conflict has ushered in brutal attacks, killings, rape, other forms of gender-based violence, as well as flagrant human rights violations,” Vignarajah said

“The Biden administration’s designation is an important recognition that no Ethiopian on the safety of U.S. soil should be returned to such dire circumstances. The move is a potentially lifesaving reprieve for tens of thousands of Ethiopians who have already contributed so much to U.S. communities,” she added.