This week, 33 national security experts — including 31 former federal government officials — are sending a letter to the secretaries of State and Homeland Security, urging them to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Yemenis living in the United States, and to redesignate Yemen for TPS, making it possible for Yemenis not currently holding this status to apply. We have added our names to this letter because TPS has saved lives and advanced America’s national interests, and its extension will continue to do so.
As former U.S. ambassadors to Yemen, we have watched the ongoing conflict in that country with grave concern. Currently, about 22 million Yemenis — more than 80 percent of the population — are in need of humanitarian assistance. People across the country suffer from severe food insecurity and preventable disease, including the largest outbreak of cholera in modern history. Hunger and sickness kill an estimated 50,000 children each year in Yemen. The war’s front lines include some of the country’s most populous areas. All parties to this internationalized civil war have attacked civilian neighborhoods indiscriminately, and targeted civil infrastructure and vital resources. In cities under their control, Houthi rebels have arrested people suspected of disloyalty by the hundreds, with the fate of many still unknown. It is clear that Yemenis returning from America would automatically court the suspicion of this paranoid regime. Meanwhile, unemployment is at a historic high, even among highly skilled professionals. Most civil servants have not received salaries in over a year. Saudi Arabia — which leads the coalition of states intervening in the war on behalf of Yemen’s government — is currently expelling thousands of Yemeni migrant workers, adding yet another burden on the already broken economy.
As pro-government forces advance on the Houthi stronghold of Hodeidah, home to Yemen’s most important sea port, there is a significant chance that the humanitarian situation inside the country could deteriorate further, as fighting could further impede the distribution of food and medicine. Even if the UN Special Envoy for Yemen succeeds in persuading all parties to return to the negotiating table, fighting is likely to continue for some time, and with it, the attendant humanitarian and economic crises, as well as the severe damage done to Yemen’s infrastructure.
For those Yemenis affected by it, the upcoming decision by the Department of Homeland Security on the extension of TPS could literally be a matter of life and death. Neither Yemeni authorities nor the international community have the capacity to resettle returning Yemenis in a way that protects them from being swept up in the war, or targeted by one or another party to the conflict, or falling victim to the humanitarian crisis that grips their homeland. Given these conditions and the certainty that they will persist, cancelling TPS for Yemenis would be tantamount to refoulement, placing their lives and freedom in immediate and grave jeopardy.
That danger extends beyond the 1,200 or so Yemenis currently protected in the U.S. Many TPS holders are supporting their families back home through remittances. Without this lifeline, those families likely will find themselves with no choice but to join the hundreds of thousands in need of humanitarian aid — a number that already far exceeds the international community’s capacity to assist. Extending and redesignating TPS for Yemenis is a small but vital protective measure, as important for our own nation’s ability to remain faithful to our values and principles as it is to the Yemenis whose lives will be deeply and directly affected.
In addition to being a moral imperative, extending and redesignating TPS for Yemenis also advances U.S. national interests. Forcing Yemenis to return home while a deadly and destabilizing armed conflict rages around them will provide a propaganda bonanza for America’s enemies. Images of law-abiding Yemeni nationals being expelled from the U.S. would strengthen the recruitment narratives propagated by the Houthis, as well as the local Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State: that the U.S. is openly hostile to Arabs and Muslims.
As a major source of both material and political support to the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen, the U.S. can neither ignore its role in the conflict, nor the moral responsibility it bears for the outcomes. It would be unconscionable for our country to actively support this war and then refuse to protect those who flee from it. The Trump administration has already halted resettlement of Yemeni refugees, and has thrown up numerous barriers to prevent Yemenis from entering the U.S. or applying for asylum. Extending TPS is the least this country can do in the face of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
Image: A woman walks past a building in the city of Aden, destroyed during the height of the ground fighting there in early 2015. Photo: Mohammed Taleb/Oxfam