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U.S. protects Ethiopian immigrants from deportation, citing civil war in their home country

The U.S. government on Friday made thousands of Ethiopian immigrants in the country eligible for deportation protections and work permits, citing the civil war in Ethiopia, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he would allow eligible Ethiopians who arrived in the U.S. on or before Oct. 20 to apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), an immigration program that allows beneficiaries to live and work in the U.S. legally for periods of time if their home countries have been beset by armed conflict, natural disasters or other dire humanitarian emergencies.

"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," Mayorkas said in a statement.

An estimated 26,700 Ethiopian immigrants in the U.S. are expected to qualify for TPS, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesperson Angelo Fernandez said. If they meet the eligibility requirements and pass background checks, Ethiopian immigrants will be able to live and work in the U.S. for at least 18 months.

DHS officials said the TPS designation for Ethiopia was warranted because the civil war there prevents Ethiopians from returning to their homeland safely, citing the threat of killings, attacks, rape, detention and other human rights violations. Ethiopia, officials added, is also battling hunger, droughts, floods and disease outbreaks.

The ongoing armed conflict in Ethiopia began in late 2020, when the country's central government waged an offensive against separatists in the Tigray region, home to the Tigrayans, a minority group. The fighting — which has fueled widespread famine, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings — has pushed the number of displaced Ethiopians to 5.5 million people, according to the United Nations.

While the U.S. federal government has been able to create TPS programs since 1990, the Biden administration has used the legal authority broadly, giving hundreds of thousands of immigrants the opportunity to live and work in the country without fear of deportation.

Sixteen immigrant groups currently have TPS designations, a record high, including immigrants from Venezuela, Myanmar, Haiti, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Cameroon, who were made eligible for the program by the Biden administration.

While it allows beneficiaries to work and live in the U.S. lawfully, TPS does not make them eligible for permanent residency or citizenship. Those hoping to benefit from the program also often have to wait months or years for their work permits due to processing delays at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

As part of its immigration crackdown, the Trump administration tried to end several TPS programs, arguing that the authority had been abused. Federal courts, however, prevented the terminations from taking place.

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, applauded Friday's announcement, saying that U.S. deportations to Ethiopia could be a "potentially fatal prospect," especially for members of the Tigrayan minority.

"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," Vignarajah said.

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