This time, will Liberians in Minnesota be forced to leave?

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2009 - 5:36 AM

Anxiety is running high for Liberians now living in Minnesota and whose temporary immigration status will expire March 31. Lobbying to allow them to stay is intensifying.

Once more, the clock is ticking for Aba Hamilton-Dolo and the 1,000 or more Liberian immigrants like her who have made Minnesota their home.

Their temporary permission to live and work in the United States is to expire March 31. Barring an extension, about 3,600 Liberians across the country will be sent back to Liberia, a war-ravaged place where there is no electricity, no running water and an average life expectancy of 42 years.

Hamilton-Dolo, whose 4-year-old daughter was born in Minnesota and whose 15-year-old son has a green card, would face a heart-wrenching choice -- take her family from its Coon Rapids home or leave her children behind to be cared for by her husband and mother.

"Do I uproot my family and move back to Liberia, or do I choose to leave my kids here?" she asked.

Minnesota has one of the largest Liberian populations in the country, with the highest concentration living in the Brooklyn Park area.

Last week, a national delegation that included members of Minnesota's Liberian community traveled to Washington to present a petition asking President Obama to extend by 18 months the deadline for those Liberians living here on an immigration status known as "deferred enforced departure."

Supporters say the extension would buy enough time for Congress to debate and decide on legislation that would grant a path to citizenship for the thousands of Liberians who came here on temporary status after a bloody civil war broke out in their homeland in 1989 and have, since then, been granted regular extensions because of the ongoing conflict.

But once the war ended and elections were held in 2006, U.S. government officials decided it was time for the Liberians' temporary protected status to end and for them to go back. The Liberians and their supporters say, however, that Liberia is still fragile and is not ready to absorb thousands of repatriates.

While there is no organized opposition in Minnesota to extending the departure deadline, there are national critics. Leaders of the Federation for American Immigration Reform say it's time for those Liberians who were given only temporary protection to return.

The last time the deadline caused this much of a stir was in September 2007, when then-President George W. Bush granted Liberians an 18-month extension before they would have to leave. Community leaders say anxiety levels are especially high now, with the deadline just 29 days away, because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stated in 2007 that no new extensions would be granted.

Running out of time

"We're running out of time on this one," said Kerper Dwanyen, president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota. "What's made it more challenging is that typically, the deadlines have been Sept. 31, so when we have the transition with new presidents they had nine months to get settled. But Obama has had two months, plus more challenges than anyone in modern history. It doesn't make for an easy situation trying to get heard in all this noise."

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar have sponsored bills in the past to offer Liberians living under temporary protected status a chance to become U.S. citizens. On Thursday, Ellison's legislative director, Minh Ta, said Ellison and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., have sent a letter to Obama reminding him about the Liberian issue and urging him to act on the upcoming deadline.

"We're very confident that this issue will be dealt with in a positive way, and the Liberians will be granted an extension," Ta said.

In the meantime, a grass-roots coalition has formed to push for permanent residency for the Liberians. It includes the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, the Advocates for Human Rights, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Minneapolis Urban League and the Sisters of St. Joseph.

"We're trying to shout as loud as we can and send a lot of e-mails to friends of Liberians to ask them to take up the issue," said Wynfred Russell, director of the Center for Multicultural Services at Normandale Community College in Bloomington. He is from Liberia and is now a permanent U.S. resident. "At this point it's almost like a Hail Mary pass," he said. "Whatever resonates with the current administration, we're going to take it."

The children remain the biggest concern for Liberian families facing possible deportation. Some of them are in the United States on temporary status, and would be sent to live in a country they barely remember should the deadline stand.

Many others were born in the United States and face the possibility of having to move in with friends or relatives while their parents go back to Liberia. Community leaders say the number of Liberians living in the area under temporary protection is much higher than the estimated 3,600.

Liberians living here temporarily have been here long enough to put down roots, buying homes and opening their own hair salons, restaurants, clothing stores and other businesses. But after March 31, they no longer will be authorized to work in the country.

Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center city officials say they're worried about the impact the loss of at least 1,000 people on their communities, already hit hard by the foreclosure crisis. Church leaders, too, are concerned about losing large segments of their flocks.

Many Liberians also send a portion of their earnings to their relatives back in Liberia, and that ability to support the larger family will be wiped out if they are deported, Russell said.

'People are on edge'

As the deadline draws nearer, Dwanyen's cell phone rings constantly.

"I get these calls saying, 'What's going on? What's going on?'" said Dwanyen, who has a green card. "People are anxious to see a permanent solution, and with all the issues the Congress and president are dealing with, people are on edge."

Unsure of how worried she should be, Hamilton-Dolo says she can't sleep at night and has panic attacks when she thinks about having to leave her children.

Her husband is from Liberia too, but he has a green card. Her mother is a U.S. citizen.

In her eight years in America, Hamilton-Dolo has married, bought a house, earned her master's degree from St. Mary's University and had another child. She's not eager to trade her secure life for a hardscrabble existence in Liberia.

"I've just had a good life, living and working and just doing normal things that people do," she said.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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