A Senate Democrat and a House Republican from Ohio are asking the Biden administration to grant immigration relief to Mauritanian nationals in the United States, some of whom are at risk of being pressed into slavery if repatriated.

Ohio’s Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) and Rep. Mike Carey (R) on Wednesday wrote President Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asking them to include U.S.-based Mauritanians in either the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) programs.

“The United States must send a clear message that our nation condemns slavery and will not return people to conditions where they may be enslaved or denied citizenship rights through an immediate designation of TPS or DED for Mauritanians living in the United States,” they wrote.

Both TPS and DED are humanitarian immigration programs. The Department of Homeland Security can designate for TPS a country undergoing natural or man-made disasters, granting its U.S.-based citizens work permits and deferral from deportation.

A DED designation is issued by the president as part of his foreign policy powers, essentially banning the repatriation of people to a certain country. A DED designation can also grant work permits to citizens of the targeted country.

“By granting TPS to Mauritanians, the U.S. government would save the lives of hundreds of Black people, like my nephew Mamadou, who escaped slavery and persecution,” said Maryam Sy, an organizer with the Ohio Immigrant Alliance. “It is time for Mauritania to stop being a country where Black people are persecuted because of the color of their skin; a country where Blacks are considered inferior people.”

Mauritania, a former French colony that in many ways has been a poster child for flawed decolonization in Africa, is ruled by an Arab minority that has historically enslaved a larger Black ethnic group, enforcing apartheid-like oppression.

In their letter, the Ohio lawmakers noted that nearly half of the Mauritanian diaspora in the United States lives in the Buckeye State.

“Currently, there are an estimated 8,000 foreign-born Mauritanians residing in the United States. More than 3,000 foreign-born Mauritanians live in Ohio, with the largest diaspora settling in Cincinnati and central Ohio,” they wrote.

They also noted that slavery remains commonplace in the country, which technically made the practice illegal in 1981 and was the last country in the world to criminalize slavery in 2007, and again in 2015.

“Despite recent efforts to combat human trafficking, slavery continues in both rural and urban settings. In addition, Black Mauritanians reportedly face significant discrimination, forced displacement, and exclusion from full citizenship rights,” Carey and Brown wrote.

In an email to The Hill, Mauritanian Human Rights Commissioner Cheikh Ahmedou Ould Sidi touted the Mauritanian government’s efforts to investigate and prosecute slavery, an issue that’s become central to the country’s politics.

“Mauritania was acclaimed by the founding [non-governmental organizations] of the G5 Sahel Network against slavery, during a regional forum organized in Nouakchott [in] March 2022, in which our country was presented as a reference model in the fight against slavery,” wrote Ould Sidi.

“During this forum, the participants welcomed the significant progress made in the field of human rights in Mauritania, since the accession to power of HE Mr. Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani, President of the Republic. ‘The bans, abuses and imprisonments that hit activists are now over,’ they pointed out, stressing that all slavery cases have been seriously dealt with by the prosecution,” he added.

Still, slavery has marked Mauritania’s foreign affairs and global perception.

While the Trump administration cut some trade benefits to Mauritania over the issue of slavery, deportations to the country rose despite the risks — and remain high under Biden, according to the lawmakers.

“Under the Trump administration, there was an increase in the number of Mauritanians being deported; unfortunately, deportations have continued. We encourage the administration to implement safeguards to combat the disproportionate challenges Black migrants encounter resettling in the United States,” they wrote.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 98 Mauritanians were repatriated in 2018, 41 in 2019 and 25 in 2020.

Mauritania’s abolition of slavery is rarely enforced, and a form of anti-Black hereditary chattel slavery similar to the institutionalized slavery of the antebellum United States remains in place, according to a 2021 report published by the Arab Reform Initiative.

But the lawmakers wrote that anti-Black racism in Mauritania is institutionalized beyond slavery, both in acts of political oppression against Black Mauritanians who are returned to their country and in apartheid-like conditions for other Black ethnic groups who are not traditionally enslaved.

“Beyond enslavement, Afro-Mauritanians or Black Mauritanians forcibly returned to their country face the threat of suffering human rights abuses including arrest, torture, and detention without due process,” the lawmakers wrote.

Officials regularly target journalists and anti-slavery activists, though “cases of state imprisonment and violent assault of anti-slavery activists and Afro-Mauritanian or Black Mauritanians activists have decreased under President Ghazouani,” Brown and Carey wrote.

“Detainees have been waterboarded, forced to eat sand, beaten with electric cables, burned with hot knives, and more,” wrote the lawmakers.

The bipartisan letter focusing on Mauritania comes as the country takes center stage regionally, hosting the third African Conference for Peace, and just days after dignitaries from across the Arab world descended on the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, chosen as the capital of culture in the Islamic world for 2023.

The Ohio lawmakers touched on Mauritania’s foreign relations in their letter, accusing the country of rendering some of its repatriated citizens stateless by agreeing to take deportees from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but withholding full identification papers.

“As of 2018, the Mauritanian government was issuing one-time passes for deportees’ entry back into the country, called ‘laissez-passers.’ These passes leave the individual stateless with no recognition of their citizenship or their right to reside or work in the country. This effectively removes their right to move freely and denies any opportunity to obtain identity documents, increasing their vulnerability to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation,” wrote the lawmakers.

Brown and Carey added that TPS and DED beneficiaries contribute more than $3.6 billion a year in state, federal and local taxes, and that a TPS or DED designation for Mauritania would send a global message.

“The ongoing human rights violations, including slavery and human trafficking, occurring in Mauritania warrant a designation of either TPS or DED. The appropriate designation would send a clear message of condemnation and protect those seeking refuge in the United States,” they wrote.

–Updated on Jan. 23 at 10:10 a.m.