Obama's extension for those in U.S. on temporary status is sweet relief. Now attention turns to Congress and citizenship.
Ten days away from facing deportation, 1,000 or more Minnesota Liberians exhaled Friday after learning that they'll be able to stay put -- at least for another year.
President Obama announced that he's granting a 12-month extension to the March 31 deportation deadline for the 3,600 Liberians living in the United States legally on a temporary immigration status.
Minnesota is home to one of the largest Liberian communities in the country, mostly concentrated in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center.
Those who received the temporary immigration designation were fleeing a bloody civil war that started 20 years ago. Since then, many have built new lives in Minnesota, having children, buying homes and establishing careers.
Tension over the deadline mounted within the local Liberian community as parents feared being torn from their children or having to take them back to a war-ravaged country.
"It's been really tense, so this gives us some relief, albeit temporarily," said Kerper Dwanyen, president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota.
For months, he and other supporters have been lobbying for an 18-month extension and legislation that would grant the group an avenue to citizenship. On Friday, their attention shifted quickly from the White House to Congress.
Dwanyen said community leaders are now planning an event to both celebrate the extension and kick off the campaign to push for a law allowing the Liberians with temporary status to apply for citizenship.
Officials also look forward
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, said a bill was introduced in Congress on Thursday night that would do that, ending the limbo and annual petition for extensions that have been going on for years.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, also a Democrat and another congressional leader on the Liberian immigration issue, said he, too, was relieved that the extension had been granted. "This was the right thing to do to keep families together and it embraces the fundamental foundation of an immigrant nation," Ellison said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican whose west-suburban congressional district is home to one of the largest Liberian communities in the nation, added: "Without an extension, families would have been torn apart, businesses would have closed and communities would have suffered," he said. "Liberia remains a country scarred by civil war and is simply not ready to absorb thousands of new residents."
The last time the deadline caused this much anxiety was in 2007, when in September of that year then-President George W. Bush granted an 18-month extension of the enforcement deadline for departure for the Liberians. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also said in 2007 that no new extensions would be granted.
Wynfred Russell, director of the multicultural center at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, said he began receiving text messages "from all over" about the reprieve shortly after it was announced.
'A major sense of release'
Russell is from Liberia but is a permanent U.S. resident. Still, he said the March 31 deadline created a high level of stress that reverberated throughout the Twin Cities' Liberian community because he and many other permanent residents have relatives and friends who would have been deported.
"Everyone is overjoyed, they're just so grateful this came to pass." Russell said. "People were afraid. The anxiety was really high. There's a major sense of release that people are now expressing."
Doris Parker, executive director of the Brooklyn Park-based Liberian Women's Initiative-Minnesota, said many Liberian mothers, including two of her sisters, faced the heartbreaking choice of leaving their U.S.-born children with relatives in Minnesota and Rhode Island or taking them to an unfamiliar country with few jobs or schools.
"We want to extend our thanks and appreciation to President Obama for the extension, but we're asking for permanent residence status to avoid separating mothers from their children," Parker said, adding that "one year will fly by in the blink of an eye." A 12-month extension was the typical grace period granted by past administrations.
Parker also said that many people tend to look past the real issue, which isn't that Liberians simply don't want to go home. She and other advocates for the Liberian cause have argued that Liberia is still a fragile nation and is not ready to absorb so many repatriates at once. There's no electricity, no running water and an average life expectancy of 42 years.
"Liberia is still not ready [for this influx]," Parker said. "You're going to dump 10,000 people into a country where everything was destroyed."
Liberia's war ended in 2003, and elections were held in 2005. In 2006, U.S. government officials decided it was time for the Liberians' temporary protection to end and for them to return. Not all Liberians in Minnesota have the temporary protected immigration status. Many have green cards or are U.S. citizens.
A grass-roots coalition has been advocating for permanent residency. Members include the Jewish Community Action, the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, the Minneapolis Urban League and the Advocates for Human Rights.