How U.S. immigration system is failing Cameroonians

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How U.S. immigration system is failing Cameroonians 1

Cameroonian immigrant Charles Lwanga stands in a crowd gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., to remember Black immigrants who have been recently deported. (Getty/Jahi Chikwendiu)

Cameroon is grappling with multiple humanitarian crises—including an armed conflict—that have increased insecurity, destabilized the nation, and caused its people immense suffering.

Conflicts across the region involving state security forces, armed nonstate groups, and attacks by the transnational terrorist group Boko Haram have contributed to rising human rights abuses and deteriorating living conditions in the country.

While security is a major concern for civilians, increasing food insecurity, compounded by economic instability as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, has pushed many Cameroonians to the brink.

Amid such complex and worsening circumstances, there is growing evidence that returning home means risking persecution, detention, torture, mass displacement, and worse for Cameroonian nationals living abroad.

Records show that those deported to Cameroon face a heightened risk of persecution and being subjected to the harms they originally fled, as many are targeted by President Paul Biya’s government, who views returnees as opposition.

Under existing immigration law, the U.S. secretary of homeland security is authorized to designate a country for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) if it meets certain conditions that temporarily preclude its nationals from returning safely.

Deteriorating conditions in Cameroon along with ongoing humanitarian crises exacerbated by the pandemic make return dangerous and warrant immediate humanitarian protection for Cameroonians residing in the United States.

Reports indicate that current U.S. asylum policies have failed to provide Cameroonians with due process when seeking asylum. As a result, many Cameroonians have suffered ill treatment and abuse in immigration detention, where they have faced discrimination because of their race, forcing many to return to a country where they may face grave harm and persecution.

The Center for American Progress estimates that there are up to 40,000 noncitizen Cameroonians living in the United States—32,700 adults and 7,300 children—who could be made eligible for protection by a TPS designation.

Given the worsening crisis in Cameroon, various Black immigrants’ rights advocacy organizations such as Cameroon Advocacy Network, Haitian Bridge Alliance, and UndocuBlack Network—along with members of Congress—have been advocating to temporarily protect them from deportation.

It is urgent that the U.S. government do so now and provide protection and stability for Cameroonian nationals living in the United States.

There is growing evidence that returning home means risking persecution, detention, torture, mass displacement, and worse for Cameroonian nationals living abroad.

Insecurity and instability have led to human rights abuses

After several decades of relative peace, Cameroon is facing major complex challenges, which have resulted in the internal displacement of thousands of people in addition to widespread kidnapping, torture, and killings. The challenges facing Cameroon and its people include:

  • Cameroon is a linguistically diverse nation in Central Africa with both English and French as its official languages. The country is divided into 10 regions: eight Francophone regions and two Anglophone regions, the latter of which are located in the northwest and southwest. In 2016, peaceful protests against the Biya administration’s decision to assign French-speaking judges and teachers to institutions in the Anglophone regions escalated into a full-blown separatist movement, resulting in a humanitarian crisis. People living in the Anglophone regions are bearing the brunt of this conflict—known as the Anglophone crisis—and are caught between state security forces and armed nonstate groups. Human Rights Watch reported that both state security forces and armed nonstate groups have committed grave human rights violations against civilians.

 

  • Armed nonstate groups have destroyed property, targeted humanitarian workers, and attacked schools in the Anglophone regions. Similarly, state security forces have attacked villages; raped women; and arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and killed civilians suspected of colluding with separatists. As of August 2020, more than 1 million people have been displaced in the northwest and southwest regions—having either moved to other regions in Cameroon or sought refuge in Nigeria.
  • President Biya, who has headed the country since 1982, has responded to political dissent and opposition with brute force and detained and tortured hundreds for exercising their freedom of speech and assembly. For example, the government has used anti-terror laws as well as COVID-19 prevention measures to limit protests.
  • In Cameroon’s far north region bordering Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram continues to attack civilians, humanitarian workers, and activists. While the government claims—despite Boko Haram’s presence—that the situation has stabilized, Human Rights Watch has documented that the region is increasingly becoming the epicenter of violence.
  • Another separate surge of violence in the northwest and far north near the Lake Chad basin has caused a rapid rise in displacement. As of September 2020, more than 322,000 Cameroonians in the far north have been internally displaced as a result of these conflicts.
  • As of September 2021, Cameroon was hosting 460,317 refugees—mostly women, girls, and children—from the Central African Republic (CAR), Nigeria, and other countries. CAR refugees in the eastern region have exacerbated preexisting vulnerabilities, placing a severe strain on already depleted basic resources and social services infrastructure.21

While the severity of need is more extreme in certain regions of Cameroon, approximately 4.4 million people require humanitarian assistance throughout the country.

Furthermore, approximately 2.6 million people in Cameroon—10 percent of the population—are in acute food insecurity as a result of armed conflicts, compounded by COVID-19 prevention measures and extreme weather due to climate change.

The United States is already on the ground in Cameroon working to increase access to health care, improve security, and provide humanitarian assistance.

The multifaceted challenges in Cameroon also call for a protection of Cameroonians living abroad from being returned to dangerous conditions. Designating TPS for Cameroon provides Cameroonians in the United States a temporary relief from deportation so that they are not forcibly returned to places where they may be targeted.

Cameroon meets the standards for TPS designation

The secretary of homeland security has the authority to designate a foreign country for TPS if its nationals cannot safely return or if, in some cases, the country cannot handle the return of its nationals because of ongoing armed conflicts, a natural disaster such as an earthquake, or extraordinary and temporary conditions. In addition to receiving protection from deportation, TPS also allows its holders to apply for temporary work permits.

40,000

Estimated number of Cameroonians living in the United States who could be made eligible for protection by TPS designation

Cameroon meets the conditions required for a TPS designation: It has an escalating armed conflict as well as multiple “extraordinary and temporary” challenges that make the immediate return of Cameroonian nationals risky.

There is documented evidence that many Cameroonians who are deported from the United States have faced detention, rape, torture, and extortion. Some have gone into hiding, and others have gone missing. Often, those deported are targeted because of “their actual or imputed opposition to the government.”

Several members of Congress have urged the administration to designate Cameroon for TPS and protect Cameroonians from deportation. For example, in October 2021, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) introduced the Cameroon TPS Act of 2021, which would designate Cameroon for TPS.

With approximately 87 percent of TPS holders in the U.S. labor force, their households contribute more than $2.3 billion in federal taxes and $1.3 billion in state and local taxes every year.

In addition to meeting a humanitarian need, designating Cameroon for TPS is in the national interest. TPS holders contribute to the U.S. economy, working in occupations ranging from maintenance to construction to childcare.

With approximately 87 percent of TPS holders in the U.S. labor force, their households contribute more than $2.3 billion in federal taxes and $1.3 billion in state and local taxes every year.

The U.S. immigration system is failing Cameroonians

Despite the escalating conflict in Cameroon and rising insecurity, the United States continues to deport Cameroonians and deny them the right to seek asylum.

Due to unjust U.S. immigration policies such as metering, Title 42, and the Remain in Mexico policy, thousands of Cameroonians, along with other migrants, are stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border, unable to seek asylum in the United States.

Furthermore, over the past couple of years, there has been a sharp decrease in the asylum approval rate for all nationalities. While asylum approval rates hovered around 50 percent in the early 2010s, those rates have since steadily decreased and even reached a staggering 26.7 percent in fiscal year 2020, illustrating the dysfunctionality in the U.S. asylum system.

The number of Cameroonian asylum applicants has been increasing steadily since FY 2016, which coincides with the escalation of humanitarian crises in Cameroon. However, from FY 2020 through FY 2021, the number of Cameroonians seeking asylum dropped by nearly 80 percent, from 1,613 to 339. Similarly, the number of overall asylum applications dropped by almost 60 percent in the same period.

Moreover, Cameroonians and other Black immigrants—and other immigrants of color—in the United States also face racial equity issues in the U.S. criminal justice system. Due in great measure to mass criminalization and racial profiling, Black people are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

These race-based practices result in the arrest of Black people at 2 1/2 times the rate of white people. Since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal agencies tasked with enforcing immigration laws prioritize the deportation and detention of individuals with criminal records, this puts Black immigrants at a higher risk of detention and deportation.

As a result, Black immigrants are disproportionately represented in immigration detention. Therefore, despite Black immigrants representing only 5.4 percent of the U.S. undocumented population and only 7.2 percent of the total noncitizen population, they represented more than 10 percent of all immigrants in removal proceedings between 2003 and 2015.

Furthermore, the bonds of Black immigrants in ICE detention are much higher than for other immigrants, forcing Black immigrants to stay in ICE custody longer. For instance, between June 2018 and June 2020, the average bond paid for immigrants in ICE custody by the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services was $10,500, but the average bond paid for Haitian immigrants was $16,700, which was 54 percent higher than for other immigrants.

Moreover, even though Black immigrants made up about 4 percent of people in ICE detention from 2012 to 2017, they represented 24 percent of people in solitary confinement, attesting to harsher and unfair treatment.

While Trump-era immigration policies have affected all migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, Black migrants faced an additional set of challenges due to race and language barriers.

For example, under the Trump administration, ICE detained and subjected many Cameroonians to inhumane treatment, including nonconsensual removal of detained women’s fallopian tubes. In addition, ICE has denied Cameroonians access to medical and mental health care, used excessive force, and subjected them to prolonged solitary confinement.

Despite calls from immigrants’ rights advocates to suspend deportations of Cameroonians, in October and November of 2020, ICE deported more than 90 Cameroonians on two deportation flights, according to Human Rights Watch.

 

Testimonies gathered by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other immigrants’ rights advocates detailed that ICE threatened, choked, beat, pepper-sprayed, and forced Cameroonian detainees to sign their deportation documents—even those who did not speak English and did not have an interpreter present. Immigrant rights advocates have filed complaints detailing the civil and human rights violations committed by ICE against Cameroonian detainees.

 

And a recent Human Rights Watch report found that deported Cameroonians are detained and tortured by government security forces in Cameroon and are subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment.

 

Such treatment demands that the United States designate Cameroon for TPS and suspend deporting Cameroonians to places where they cannot safely return and will likely face serious harm and persecution.

Conclusion

The Biden administration should use all the humanitarian tools available to help and support Cameroonians in the United States who are currently at risk of being returned to a country where they may face imminent danger.

Since Cameroon clearly meets the necessary conditions, the Biden administration should immediately designate Cameroon for TPS. Such a designation would provide temporary but much-needed protection to Cameroonians in the United States in addition to security and stability for their families.

The Center for Am

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