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Ohio has a large population of people who fled Mauritania. A proposed bill would provide temporary deportation protection

Mauritanian activists outside Cincinnati City Hall during a rally Nov. 28, 2023.
Nick Swartsell
Mauritanian activists outside Cincinnati City Hall during a rally Nov. 28, 2023.

New legislation could limit deportation for some people coming to the U.S. to escape slavery and human rights violations.

The TPS for Mauritania Act proposed by a bipartisan coalition of Ohio's congressional delegates would extend what's known as Temporary Protected Status for people from Mauritania for 18 months while they work through more permanent legal status. TPS protects those fleeing political violence or other intense instability from deportation and allows them to obtain work visas.

Human rights groups say Mauritania is the site of numerous abuses against its Black citizens, many of whom have fled to the U.S.

Ohio has the densest population of people from Mauritania in the United States. There are more than 6,000 here, by some estimates, including 3,000 in Columbus and another large population on the suburban fringes of Cincinnati.

At a rally outside Cincinnati City Hall in late November, Cincinnati-based Mauritanian Network for Human Rights President Houleye Thiam said many have little choice but to leave.

"They're leaving because they have no peace, Black Mauritanians especially," she said. "It's been very hard, so people are leaving to seek their lives outside, especially to the U.S. to seek human rights and justice. But also to tell their stories."

The French colonized Mauritania in 1903 and handed control of the country, which is roughly the size of Texas and New Mexico, to a small group of elites in 1960. It's currently home to about 3.5 million people. The country is about 75% desert but has valuable natural gas and oil deposits.

Mauritania passed from one dictatorship to another after the end of French colonization.

Under those regimes, Black Mauritanians experienced continued discrimination, violence and sometimes slavery. Things got even worse in 1989, when a border dispute between the country and neighboring Senegal erupted into chaotic violence directed at Mauritania's Black population.

Although estimates from organizations like Human Rights Watch and the U.N. differ, between 50,000 and 100,000 Black Mauritanians were forcibly removed from the country. Others fled. Still others — it isn't known how many — were killed.

Mansour Kane fled Mauritania for New York three decades ago in the wake of the brutal crackdown. He says things haven't gotten better there since.

"It's never stopped," he says. "Sometimes it's killing, sometimes it's arrests, sometimes it's extortion, taking our lands, preventing us from getting papers — our children won't go to school and we can't have property because we don't have papers. It's all kinds of discrimination."

While slavery was officially outlawed in Mauritania in 2007, rights groups say it still exists, especially in the country's rural areas.

Cincinnati's U.S. Rep. Greg Landsman is one of the sponsors of the TPS for Mauritania Act.

"Mauritanians are fleeing horrific conditions and settling here in the United States to pursue a better way of life," Landsman said in a statement. "In Cincinnati, they've become an integral part of our community. Our bipartisan bill would give our Mauritanian neighbors a sense of security. It will ensure they aren't forced to return to dangerous conditions, and allow them to continue living, working, and contributing to the communities they’ve become a part of."

Activists say things like extending TPS are good, but that the U.S. should also put more pressure on the Mauritanian government to end its abuses.

"We are part of the community," Thiam says. "We come with our own needs and our own stories. The first thing to do is listen to our stories and know why we are leaving. Elected officials have to work together in Washington to put pressure on the Mauritanian government to stop the bleeding."

Nick Swartsell is a general assignment reporter for WVXU in Cincinnati. =