How the United States defines the word "temporary" is becoming a key question for immigrants allowed to stay and work in Minnesota when disaster strikes back home.
The Trump administration is about to decide whether to continue a program called temporary protected status for several Central American countries and a similar program for Liberia. As some local recipients brace for bad news, advocates on opposite sides of the immigration debate are squaring off over just how long is long enough to harbor immigrants from troubled places.
Critics argue these programs were meant as only short-term reprieves but instead have lasted for years or even decades after natural disasters hit and civil wars ended, shielding some who came illegally or overstayed visas. But local immigrants and advocates say TPS countries remain unstable places. After years in immigration limbo, their citizens here have earned a shot at staying permanently.
"You're dealing with countries where what is predictable is ongoing strife and ongoing dysfunction," said John Keller of the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
Now, some are lobbying for legislation that would open a path to citizenship for program recipients, saying an end to TPS would upend the lives of longtime residents with U.S. citizen children and tough-to-fill health care jobs. In contrast, TPS critics are calling on Congress to limit TPS only to people who came legally and block recipients from permanent status.
A mixed message
The Trump administration has sent mixed messages so far. In May, it granted a six-month extension to 60,000 Haitians given TPS after the 2010 earthquake. On Monday, the administration said it would end TPS for Haiti.
Earlier in November, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would put off a decision on TPS for Honduras, granted after Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998. It ended TPS for 2,500 Nicaraguans and gave them until 2019 to explore other options to stay or prepare to leave.
A statement invoked "the difficulty facing citizens of Nicaragua — and potentially citizens of other countries — who have received TPS designation for close to two decades" and urged Congress to find a permanent solution.
The call for a legislative fix cheered immigrant advocates such as Keller.
But he say he remains pessimistic about upcoming decisions: on El Salvador by early January, on Liberia by March and on Honduras later next year.
The State Department weighed in this fall that extending protections for Central American countries was no longer justified.
Abdullah Kiatamba, a Liberian community leader who heads the nonprofit African Immigrant Services, estimates thousands in Minnesota would be affected.
TPS was approved for Liberia in 1991 as a brutal civil war erupted and again in 1999 as fighting flared up. In 2007, President George W. Bush ended the program but allowed recipients to apply for another deportation reprieve called deferred enforced departure, or DED, which has been extended roughly every 18 months since.
"For a lot of people, there's a life-and-death urgency around this," Kiatamba said.
The north metro is one of North America's largest Liberian enclaves. Kiatamba says many local recipients have children born here and own homes. Some run their own businesses.
Liberians and other West Africans are a mainstay of the labor force at metro nursing homes and other health care facilities.
Those positions would be hard to fill if immigrants lost their work permits, says Bill Blazar, who leads the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
"If you ask a nursing home administrator who the personal care assistants and nursing assistants are, chances are they'll be immigrants," he said, adding. "The Liberians are part of our economy now."
Abena Abraham, a University of Minnesota senior, can relate to the mounting anxiety.
Her mother traveled to the United States from Liberia on a visitor visa in the late 1990s and qualified for TPS. Several years later, Abraham, who was 4, joined her mother. When TPS for Liberia ended in 2007, they qualified for DED.
"It was a pretty tense time," Abraham said. "It didn't feel like protection at all."
With extensions often coming just as the status was about to expire, she scrambled to renew her work permit, and her driver's license was suspended several times. She lost a summer job at a grocery store because she couldn't renew her permit on time.
Two years ago, Abraham got a green card after her mother, who married a U.S. citizen, sponsored her.
She qualified for federal loans and financial aid and was able to transfer to the U from a community college.
A lobbying push
TPS critics are also watching the administration's upcoming moves closely. Despite "an indecisive decision" on Nicaragua and Honduras, Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for reducing immigration, says he hopes the government will treat TPS as truly temporary.
He says many TPS countries were troubled places before disaster stuck, and the United States has no obligation to wait until they become "the Garden of Eden" to start sending their citizens back.
In the case of Liberia, he says, the U.S. government signaled conditions had improved by canceling TPS — then continued to harbor its citizens for another decade. He rejects the idea that the United States must accommodate people led to believe they would get to stay indefinitely. Many came to the country illegally and never intended to return home, he said.
"We owe them something because we were overly generous in the first place?" Mehlman said. "That defies logic."
Meanwhile, local activists are springing to action, often advocating for both TPS and DACA, an Obama deportation reprieve program for young immigrants that Trump is phasing out.
Abraham traveled to Washington, D.C., in mid-November for the Black Immigration Network's TPS day of action. Liberian activists and the Immigrant Law Center reached out to U.S. Rep Keith Ellison.
Last spring, Ellison introduced a proposal to extend a separate TPS program for Liberia and two other countries affected by the 2014 Ebola epidemic.
That stalled, and now he is reintroducing another bill that he has championed since 2011, the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act, which opens a path to citizenship for longtime immigrants from Liberia. He's also backing the American Promise Act, which would allow TPS and DED recipients from any country to apply for green cards.
"Pulling the rug out from underneath [TPS recipients] by terminating their protection is wrong," Ellison said. "It not only uproots the lives of our neighbors in Minnesota, but destabilizes countries trying to get back on their feet."
Advocates say they also will lobby U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican who supports a legislative replacement for DACA and whose district includes West African enclaves in the north metro.
Kiatamba says most recipients of the Ebola TPS, which expired in May, never returned home. More cancellations will only send more people into the immigration shadows.
"The outcome will depend on us — how much we push," Kiatamba said.