These days, Jermon Cooper takes extra time to teach her daughters how to cook their favorite Liberian dishes, reminding the girls that soon she may not be around to do it for them.
“I want them to focus on school, so sometimes I just tell them we’ll be OK. … But deep down in my heart I know we will not be OK,” said Cooper.
The Ramsey resident left Liberia in 1999 and became a licensed practical nurse. She has given birth to three children in the United States. And she is among hundreds of Liberians who will lose their legal status to remain in the United States after March 31, as President Donald Trump ends a program known as Deferred Enforced Departure (DED).
Trump last March gave those with DED status one year to leave the U.S., saying Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflicts and has recovered from a 2014 outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.
Minnesota is home to one of the largest populations of Liberians in the country, with thousands having come to the northwest metro suburbs several decades ago fleeing civil war. They were granted temporary status under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, but by 2007 the Department of Homeland Security announced that participants would have to return to Liberia, spurring fears of deportation. President George W. Bush approved continued protections that were extended under the Obama administration. In the meantime, some with DED status bought homes and had children who are U.S. citizens. Many took jobs in health care.
“We describe it as a crisis in the Liberian community. … People are really, really afraid,” said Erasmus Williams, chairman of the Liberian Immigration Coalition.
Sitting in the office of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM), Williams noted that Liberia was founded in the 19th century by freed slaves from America.
“Everything that we have in our country, from constitution to policy, came from the United States,” Williams said.
The administration said last year that 840 Liberians had work permits through the program. A spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for restricting immigration, said such programs were never intended to give people the right to stay permanently.
“We’ve got to put a stop to the endless extensions. … And that way you don’t run into this situation where someone has been here temporarily for 20 years,” said spokesman Ira Mehlman.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents some Liberians, has worked to connect them with immigration attorneys. The city councils of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center have passed resolutions calling for those with DED status to have continued protections. Fifty members of Congress, including six from Minnesota, on Friday called for the extension of deportation protections for Liberians.
The community has held fundraisers to support trips to lobby in Washington. On a recent weekend, as Afropop played on the speakers, OLM sold boxes of homemade food: dishes with cassava leaf, rice, fish and chicken, cornbread, salad, doughnuts and plantain soup.
“I’ve been crying since yesterday,” said Estella Njang, a native of Cameroon helping set up the table.
She is married to a Liberian and came to show her support, though her husband will not be affected. Njang hugged a tearful Liberian woman who was a participant of DED along with her husband and two children, even as a third child was a U.S. citizen. What would she do with the house she had bought? What could she do in Liberia, which she had not visited in decades?
As Ebenezer Community Church in Brooklyn Park held a gathering to pray and raise money for advocacy in D.C., the Rev. George Wonlon called out before a large crowd, “Thank God, amen, amen.”
“Amen!” said the audience.
“We can feel it, something will be done!” Wonlon said.
Many have received letters from work saying their jobs will be in jeopardy if they can’t provide proof of renewed work authorization by the deadline.
“Right now we have people on DED who are afraid to drive, afraid to work, and that’s not a life to live — under the radar, like a fugitive,” said Joel Reeves, OLM’s youth coordinator.
Cooper has delayed going back to school to become licensed as a registered nurse and put off buying a car because of the uncertainty.
“When you’re on DED, you can’t make plans,” she said.
Cooper doesn’t want to leave her daughters, ages 11, 16 and 19. She and others question what they could even go back to, given that Liberia is still mired in poverty.
Help from Congress?
Cooper leaned over a second-floor railing in the Capitol rotunda during a recent rally as a parade of speakers came to advocate for Liberians.
“There’s no country in the world as special to the United States as Liberia,” said state Attorney General Keith Ellison, drawing cheers. Ellison noted the country’s American links: It was founded by an act of Congress and its capital city was named after President James Monroe.
U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, who represents the west metro, said he’d told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that the issue of DED should be included in any conversation about endangered immigration programs: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects those brought to the United States as children, as well as Temporary Protected Status for those from El Salvador, Honduras and elsewhere.
“I’m telling every one of my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, how important that is,” he said.
Phillips and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis are sponsoring legislation that would allow Liberians with DED status to stay in the country and offer them a path to citizenship. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have signed onto a bill in the upper house.
Cooper tries to keep her sense of humor, routinely joking about the deadline with a Liberian co-worker.
“We laugh about it but deep down in our hearts, we know it’s serious,” Cooper said.
Back in Liberia, her mother and siblings depend on her to send money.
A year ago, Cooper said, she felt grateful for the one-year reprieve. But it hasn’t been enough time to prepare for the possibility of leaving the country after 20 years.
“I go to bed at night and I think, ‘What’s Plan B? What happens next?’ ” she said.