Recovering from Ebola Requires Renewing TPS

By Congressman Donald M. Payne, Jr., Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, and Congressman José E. Serrano

For New Jerseyans and New Yorkers, the Ebola epidemic was not an abstract crisis in some far-away corner of the globe.

Our airports, which are gateways to the world, had to institute new screening measures, protocols and procedures.

Our medical professionals returned from the frontlines of the battle against the epidemic, including a New York doctor who survived infection and a New Jersey nurse who fought back against stigma and forced quarantine.

Most of all, our New Jersey-New York- metro region is home to over 7,000 immigrants from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the West African countries hit hardest by the epidemic. In all, nearly 130,000 Guineans, Liberians, and Sierra Leoneans reside in the U.S. The epidemic hit close to home, and it hit hard.

Our local diaspora rallied to respond, raising funds, collecting supplies, and sending medical missions. Thanks to heroic efforts by the three countries, by the international community, and by the diaspora, the epidemic was eventually contained and is being defeated. But the damage to human life and the toll taken on these developing nations was terrible: 28,657 cases of Ebola, 11,325 of them fatal.

That’s why we cheered when President Obama instituted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in November 2014. TPS recognizes that it is unsafe and inhumane to send people back to countries facing humanitarian crises like earthquakes, civil wars, and epidemics. TPS beneficiaries are allowed to remain in the United States until conditions in their homes of origin stabilize, and they are granted legal work authorization to sustain themselves and their families.

For many in our communities, it has literally been a lifesaver. TPS made it possible for Lawrence, a Sierra Leonean who lives in The Bronx, to work legally and send home money and supplies to his family throughout the epidemic, keeping them safe.

Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) extended TPS for an additional six months, until November 2016. While we were pleased that DHS recognized the continuing instability caused by the Ebola epidemic, we were surprised and disappointed by this minimal extension.

We firmly believe that it is unrealistic to think that Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone can rebuild from the worst Ebola epidemic in history in just two years. As recently as August 2016, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wrote that due to damaged infrastructure, “desperate shortages” of health workers, and economic losses, Liberia is “in a severely weakened condition” and “will take years” to recover.

The three countries face major humanitarian challenges, including caring for over 16,000 children orphaned by Ebola, and re-integrating approximately 17,000 Ebola survivors.

Meanwhile, their ability to care for their citizens has been severely reduced. Health professionals were most at risk of being infected with Ebola, weakening an already fragile health system. Access to adequate healthcare and health professionals is not expected to return to pre-Ebola levels until 2017 or beyond.

Finally, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone must contend with the danger of renewed outbreaks. Ebola can persist within the body and remain transmissible for a year after recovery. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that clusters of Ebola outbreaks are likely to reemerge. Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have been declared Ebola-free multiple times — most recently on June 1, 2016 — only for Ebola to re-emerge on several occasions.

For all these reasons, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone need time to heal, to recover, and to rebuild. We urge DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to renew their TPS designation for an additional 18 months, from November 21, 2016 through May 21, 2018.