Residency bill would end Liberians' limbo

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2011 - 11:25 PM

Refugees have had temporary immigration status renewed repeatedly, but new bill would make them permanent residents.

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Washington and Annie Yonly of Brooklyn Park have lived with the worry that they would be sent back to Liberia if their immigrant status ran out.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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It happens every year.

Hundreds of Liberians who have been living and working in Minnesota for decades under a special, temporary immigration status nervously wait to hear if they will be sent back to Liberia or granted another year of amnesty.

With just five months to go before their status expires again, a renewed effort is underway to allow the Liberian group to apply for permanent residency in the United States.

Called the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act, the bill was introduced recently in Congress by Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota.

It has support from several fellow Democrats, including Minnesota senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, but so far, no Republican lawmakers have endorsed the bill. Similar legislation has been proposed before, but it did not gain any traction.

Ellison said he doesn't know if this year will be any different, but added that he felt a need to push the issue.

"We want these folks to get some permanency," he said. "They have been here for so long. They have become enmeshed with this community. This is their home."

About 1,000 of the estimated 30,000 Liberians in Minnesota have been granted special, temporary permission to live and work legally in the country. That permission is set to expire at the end of September, and could lead to the deportation of at least 3,000 Liberians nationwide.

Adding to the urgency: the current violence in Ivory Coast, which borders Liberia.

Nearly 100,000 refugees have fled to Liberia, according to the American Refugee Committee, based in Minneapolis.

Washington and Annie Yonly of Brooklyn Park are among those with the temporary status. The couple have been living and working in the country for decades.

"When I first came, I was going to go back: That was the hope everyone had," Yonly said. "We thought the war would last for just a little while.

"But then you have your whole life wasted away waiting for the war to be over,'' he said. "When we found out that this was the situation, we thought the best thing is to get a permanent status so we can build a permanent life here."

But because of his status, he is not allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship or permanent residency.

Liberia is among eight nations whose citizens have been granted the permission to stay temporarily, either due to war or national disaster. In 1989, civil war broke out in Liberia and thousands of people fled to the United States, and to Minnesota, in particular. Minnesota is home to more Liberians than any other state.

But once the war ended and elections were held in 2005, U.S. government officials declared that it was time for the Liberians to go home. But Liberians and their supporters have argued that Liberia, with its 85 percent unemployment rate and fragile government, cannot absorb thousands of repatriates.

So began the annual appeals to the White House for an extension.

Former President George W. Bush extended the deadline in 2007 for 18 months. President Obama extended it in both 2009 and in 2010.

Last spring, when Liberians and their supporters lobbied for another 18-month extension, they argued that it would buy enough time for Congress to debate and decide on legislation that would grant a path to citizenship.

Yonly remains optimistic about his chances of staying.

"Right now, I'm not afraid," he said. "I'm really hopeful."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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