Ethiopians in the U.S. will be eligible to stay for 18 months due to civil war

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a news conference at The National Press Club in Washington, on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas speaks during a news conference on Sept. 9, 2021. (Jose Luis Magan / Associated Press)

Because of a civil war in their homeland, Ethiopians in the U.S. will be eligible to stay for 18 months and apply for work permits, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials announced Friday.

Ethiopians who were in the U.S. as of Oct. 20, whether on student visas or tourist visas or in the country without proper documentation, will be eligible to apply for temporary protected status. The status shields immigrants from potential deportation.

The status is granted to citizens of countries where conditions are too unsafe for them to return, whether because of natural disaster, armed conflict or other catastrophes.

U.S. officials estimate that 26,700 Ethiopians will be eligible to apply for the protection, which was granted because the war between Ethiopian government forces and the Tigrayan minority has put civilians at risk of being raped and killed, as well as other human rights violations.

This year, the Biden administration allowed Ukrainians in the U.S. to apply for temporary protected status and has offered the same protections to Afghans. The expansion stands in contrast to

the Trump administration, which sought to roll back the protections for several nationalities.

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

The administration can renew a nationality’s eligibility. Certain Haitians, for example, have been eligible, with repeated renewals, since an earthquake devastated their homeland in 2010. The Biden administration expanded the number of Haitians eligible for the protections last year.

Immigrant advocates have criticized the program for sometimes extending the temporary protection again and again without providing a path to a green card for people who have built lives in this country.

About 356,000 people in the U.S. were born in Ethiopia or are of Ethiopian ancestry, according to the Migration Policy Institute’s analysis of U.S. census data. About 12% live in California and 11% in Virginia.

In Los Angeles, Little Ethiopia on Fairfax Avenue is lined with restaurants and shops.

Bakimos Kidane, 34, worries that family members in Ethiopia may be targeted by authorities because they are from the Tigrayan minority. Other family members have been arrested, he said.

Kidane, who has a financial technology startup in Los Angeles, nurses his fears from afar. It is not safe for Ethiopians in the U.S. to travel home, he said.

“To send [Tigrayans] back to Ethiopia, I think would be a complete negligence,” he said. “Ethiopia isn’t a safe haven — it isn’t the homeland they knew it to be back prior to November 2020.”

A report by United Nations experts released in September found that 90% of the population in the northern Ethiopia region of Tigray was in “dire” need

of assistance. The report said Ethiopian government forces had committed war crimes and Tigrayan forces had appeared to commit human rights violations and war crimes.

Advocates and politicians have been calling on the Biden administration to extend temporary protected status to Ethiopians as the civil war, which began in 2020, has intensified.

“Protecting Ethiopians, the second-largest community of Africans in the United States, from return to untenable conditions is a vital statement to Ethiopia and our allies that our nation is restoring its commitment to human rights, globally and at home,” dozens of immigrant advocates and leaders wrote in 2021. “In addition, like many TPS holders, Ethiopians have served as essential workers during the pandemic, contributing to the economy and enriching U.S. communities.”

The U.S. State Department warns American citizens not to travel to the Tigray region “due to armed conflict, civil unrest and crime.”

“Whenever you hear there is a bombing — I hope and pray they didn’t get their home and wait until next time I hear from them. It sometimes takes awhile,” Remhai Menelik of San Francisco said of her relatives in Ethiopia.

Menelik, 29, who runs a nonprofit called Free Tigray, said she couldn’t imagine anyone going back to the country now.

“Ethiopia is not a place Tigrayans can actually live and survive right now,” she said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.