U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and three fellow House Democrats are pushing ahead with a plan to extend a program that has allowed natives of three West African countries affected by the 2014 Ebola epidemic to stay in the United States regardless of their immigration status.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea expired this week, affecting as many as 1,000 people in the Twin Cities' sizable West African community, according to community leaders and legal aid nonprofits. . The Obama administration announced the end of the program last fall, concluding that conditions in the countries had improved sufficiently.

In recent weeks, members of the Minnesota congressional delegation appealed to the Trump administration to extend the program, arguing that the countries' economies and health care systems are still reeling from the Ebola crisis even though they were declared Ebola-free.

Now, Ellison and his colleagues are taking the unusual step of attempting to lengthen the program — traditionally the purview of the executive branch — by introducing proposed legislation at the Capitol.

"Now is not the time to force members of our community to return to vulnerable countries already struggling to provide for their citizens," Ellison said in a statement.

Critics of TPS say the U.S. government tends to extend the program long after upheaval from war and natural disasters has died down, giving a reprieve to some immigrants who entered illegally or overstayed visitor visas.

Last fall, the Obama administration announced that it was giving West Africans a final six months to prepare to go home. This week, the Trump administration gave a similar final six-month extension to Haitian immigrants who qualified for TPS after a devastating earthquake in 2010.

Nationally, about 5,900 people from the three Ebola-affected countries received TPS. Immigration authorities do not have a breakdown by state, but the Twin Cities west metro hosts one of the largest West African enclaves in the country. Local West Africans said most program recipients — some who came to stay with relatives during the epidemic and others who had lived in the United States for years — will probably stick around and slip into the immigration shadows.

"People thought this was a lost cause, but the bill revives hope," said Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of African Immigrant Services, a West African nonprofit.

Ellison's West African Ebola Relief Act legislates a request made earlier this month by 45 members of Congress to Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

Kiatamba acknowledges the bill's prospects are murky in a divided Congress where immigration-related legislation has floundered in recent years. But he hopes it might help persuade the Trump administration to give West Africans at least a brief extension, "buying more time for this bill to see where it goes."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781