It’s just one amendment in a massive spending bill, but a provision in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act will transform the lives of Liberians living in Minnesota and across the United States.
The bill, passed by the House and Senate and soon to be signed by President Donald Trump, will at long last grant what has been too elusive for this beleaguered community — permanent legal status and a path to citizenship.
When their country was shattered by civil war in the 1990s, Liberians began resettling in the U.S. as refugees, under a temporary legal status. Many came to Minnesota, which now has the largest Liberian population in the country. They took jobs, often in nursing homes and health care facilities. They had children, bought homes, built close-knit communities, all under the frequent threat that their status could be snuffed out at any time. Year after year, they fought for yet another temporary extension and were rebuffed in attempts to gain more.
In March, the threat became imminent when Trump announced that conditions in Liberia had improved enough that the program known as Delayed Enforced Departure should end. He granted an extension to March 2020, at which time Liberian refugees could be expelled. That would have ripped apart communities and families alike, since there would be no way for Liberian-born parents to remain with their American-born children.
Much thanks is owed to the persistent work of lawmakers whose quiet efforts in a time of inflamed partisanship yielded results. It was done the old-fashioned way, not through dramatic floor speeches or wild rhetoric, but the grinding work of building coalitions and accepting compromises. The bill this provision was tucked into contains much that the president wants, particularly funding for the creation of his Space Force. That helped forge what is seen far too little in Congress of late — a compromise bill that sticks a little in the craw of each side, but that recognizes that to get, you must give.
Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, along with Reps. Ilhan Omar, Dean Phillips, Angie Craig and Betty McCollum, were among Minnesota lawmakers who backed the original bills and helped achieve the compromise.
“It’s a real thrill to see this day,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who as a congressman worked for years to extend permanent status to Liberian refugees.
When Rhode Island’s Sen. Jack Reed introduced a bill in February to do just that, it was given only a minuscule chance of passage. But the $738 billion defense bill offered a rare bit of leverage. The marquee trade was the Space Force — a top priority for Trump — in return for extending paid parental leave, a long-sought goal of Democrats and, not incidentally, Ivanka Trump. Smith suggested to Reed that his Liberian Immigration Fairness Act could be part of the emerging deal.
There are those who will find fault with the bill. It creates another branch of the military, adds to the debt and creates a new benefit for federal workers. But this is what compromise looks like. The alternative is gridlock, which in this case cast a pall of uncertainty over half a million people in this country for decades.
“I’m just glad this community can finally take a permanent place in our country,” Smith said in telling an editorial writer about the deal’s success. “They’ve earned it.”