Immigrants to Maine work in garden plots created by the Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine near Lewiston. (Courtesy Maine Historical Society)

The Trump administration has extended special protections for a small group of Somalis living in the United States, after dismantling the same program for immigrants from Central America and other parts of the world.

Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project

Thousands of Somalis live in Maine, but only a handful is affected by Thursday’s announcement. The federal government decided it would extend temporary protected status for an estimated 500 Somalis nationwide for another 18 months.

The program, also known as TPS, provides humanitarian relief for people whose countries of origin are reeling from natural disasters or violence, allowing them to legally stay and work in the United States.

Somalia has been included since the outbreak of civil war there in 1991, and that protection has been extended and expanded repeatedly in the decades since.

Under President Trump, however, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has argued that what was meant to be short-term relief has become a quasi-permanent program. The administration has set expiration dates within the next year and a half for protections for citizens of six other countries, including Haiti and El Salvador. So the announcement Thursday was a surprise to some.

Julia Brown, an advocacy and outreach attorney at the Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, described it as “a relief.”

“Extending TPS for Somalia is absolutely the correct decision,” Brown wrote in an email. “The Department of State’s own travel advisory says ‘do not travel to Somalia due to crime, terrorism, and piracy.’ Now our Somali clients with TPS will be able to continue working and living their lives knowing they have TPS for eighteen more months.”

There is no available data on the number of people with TPS in Maine. Sue Roche, executive director at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, said the nonprofit has fewer than a dozen clients who are Somalis with TPS, and it works with larger groups of similar clients from El Salvador and Honduras.

Still, the president has targeted the East African nation in the past through travel bans and changes to refugee resettlement.

“They’re shutting everything down without much consideration of the lives involved,” said Mahmoud Hassan, president of the Somali Community Center of Maine.

President George H.W. Bush first established TPS for Somalis in 1991 at the outset of the civil war. The people who were eligible at the time were already living in the United States — for example, a Somali citizen who was here on a student visa and could no longer return home for fear of violence.

Since then, they have been required to apply for renewal every 18 months, and people who have been convicted of a felony or more than two misdemeanors were denied. Many TPS holders now have U.S. citizen spouses or children, work and own property.

The federal government has renewed the protections for Somalis more than 20 times, according to a 2017 congressional report. It has accepted new applications twice — once in 2001 and again in 2012. Now, Somalis with TPS will be allowed to reapply another time, extending their legal ability to live and work in the United States. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen cited “the ongoing armed conflict and extraordinary and temporary conditions” in Somalia as reason to continue the program until at least 2020.

Hassan said Somalis who have lived in the United States would struggle to readjust in their home country, and they could be targeted by extremist groups for their American connections.

“The situation is still very murky and very unstable,” he said.

The majority of Somalis living in Maine came to the United States as refugees. Federal data shows more than 1,600 have been resettled here since 2002. That number, however, does not include Somali refugees who were resettled in other states and later moved to Maine, or Somalis in the state who have other types of immigration status.

The Star Tribune newspaper has reported that many Somalis with temporary protected status live in Minnesota.

Federal figures show more than 430,000 people had TPS across the U.S. as of October.

Since last year, the Trump administration has decided not to renew protections for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan. Many have been in the country since the late 1990s or early 2000s.

Their legal status will now expire in 2019 or 2020, depending on their country of origin. The federal government has extended protections for smaller groups of immigrants from countries like Yemen and South Sudan.

While these immigrants have months until the official expiration of their legal status, Roche said, many are distraught as they decide what to do next. In the meantime, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project is scheduling consultations with its clients to see if they are eligible for other protections.

“These are people who have been here for a long time, for decades in many cases,” Roche said. “They’ve been following the laws, paying the fees, getting fingerprinted to make sure they don’t have a criminal record. Many have U.S. citizen children.

“Many have been in the same jobs for years and years. They’re facing potentially needing to leave the country or getting deported if they get placed in removal proceedings.”

And even for the groups allowed to remain in the United States, like the 500 Somalis, temporary protected status does not provide a path to permanent legal residence or citizenship.

“We urge Congress to pass a law that provides people with TPS, who are integral parts of our communities, a pathway to permanent legal status,” Brown said.


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