WASHINGTON — More than 40 Democratic members of Congress wrote a letter to President Joe Biden and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday asking them to grant temporary protected status to Cameroonians living in the U.S. by placing an 18-month pause on their deportations, according to a copy of the letter obtained by NBC News.
The members of Congress were led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who has repeatedly called on both the Trump and now Biden administrations to halt deportations of Cameroonians who are seeking asylum from the humanitarian crisis in their country.
Under the Trump administration, Cameroonians who were denied asylum were sent back on what their lawyers referred to as "death planes" because of what they say is all but certain imprisonment and execution they would face at the hands of the government upon return.
"The Trump administration has shamefully mistreated and deported Cameroonian asylum seekers back to danger just this year. We urge you to do much better," the 14 senators and 28 House members said in their letter.
Temporary protected status is given to people already in the United States from countries devastated by conflict or natural disasters.
The letter asks that the Biden administration either grant temporary protected status or what is known as deferred enforcement departure, a power given to the president that would allow Cameroonians to be protected from deportation without having to register for a special program.
Currently more than 100 Cameroonians are in ICE custody with final orders of removal, according to their lawyers, which means they could be deported any day.
Justice Bantar, an asylum seeker who was imprisoned and tortured in Cameroon, has twice been told he would be deported only to be pulled back at the last minute. One of those times was under the current administration.
"It's psychological torture," said Bantar's attorney, Joseph Giardina. "He trashed all of his belongings along with the statements and evidence for his asylum case, thinking he was going back to a country where he has an arrest warrant."
Giardina said Bantar and other Cameroonians had held out hope that the Biden administration would cancel their deportations but have so far been disappointed.
According to the letter, Human Rights Watch estimates 3.9 million people in Cameroon are in need of humanitarian assistance, in large part because of multiple armed conflicts between the government, separatists and the Boko Haram jihadi terrorist group.
"Country conditions in Cameroon are both extraordinary and temporary, making return untenable and warranting immediate protections for Cameroonians living in the United States," the letter said.