Minnesotans began welcoming Liberian refugees fleeing civil war in their country nearly three decades ago. They arrived under a protected temporary status. Few dreamed that war would ravage their country for nearly 15 years, followed by a prolonged rebuilding period and an Ebola epidemic in 2014. In all those years, their immigration protections were renewed regularly by Democratic and Republican presidents alike.
The last extension of what is now called Deferred Enforced Departure was granted last year and will expire on March 31. President Donald Trump has given no indication that he intends to follow the pattern set by Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama by granting another extension or, as much of Minnesota’s congressional delegation has sought, a path to citizenship.
That is not only regrettable, it is cruel. “The feds kept renewing for 27 years because conditions in Liberia didn’t improve,” said John Keller, of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. Life happened in that time. Those “temporary” refugees built careers, homes, families — all legal under their immigration status. They are business owners, teachers, nurses. Many work in nursing homes, where the labor shortage is acute. Some have grown old here, no longer able to start over. To abruptly return them to one of the poorest spots in the world, splitting up families and creating chaos in their communities, would be monstrous.
The destruction of this community would hit Minnesota harder than perhaps any state in the nation. Minnesota is home to what may be the nation’s largest Liberian population, possibly 30,000 or more, clustered mostly in the northwest metro. Only about 4,000 of those are here under DED, said Abdullah Kiatamba, a Liberian community leader and executive director of the nonprofit African Immigrant Services. But, he said, “every Liberian in Minnesota is connected to one of those 4,000.”
U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, the Minnesota Republican who is among those championing their cause, said he has come to know the community well over the years. His grandmother was cared for by a Liberian immigrant when she entered long-term care. “I play soccer with these guys on the weekends,” he said. “I’ve taken my daughters to their games. I know them. Our community is stronger for their presence. They work hard and pose no threat or risk to anyone. It doesn’t make sense to just pull the rug out from under them.” He and Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison have offered a House bill that would permit Liberians under the program to become citizens.
Here’s another reason to create an exception: The DED universe is a finite one. No other nation has it. No one new has been admitted under this kind of blanket protection for years. “This is a unique situation,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in a Senate floor speech, noting that once DED expires, so too will refugees’ ability to work legally.
Extending their legal status is not only a matter of compassion, but practicality. Who benefits when thriving businesses are shuttered, needed jobs left empty and American-born children possibly left without their parents? These refugees have earned a right to stay by virtue of living, working and contributing to this country for decades, all under the legal auspices of the U.S. government.
Kiatamba recently went to Washington with others to plead for mercy. “People are living in complete fear,” he said. “After March 31, anything, even getting pulled over for expired tabs, could be a trigger for deportation. These are your neighbors, your workmates. Our community is bracing for something that has never occurred before.”
The state’s entire congressional delegation should band together to stand up for these Minnesotans, and Trump should emulate the compassion shown by his presidential predecessors. Meanwhile, Liberians plan to gather for a rally at the State Capitol on Monday, a little before noon, to help bring public attention to their cause.