Liberians celebrated in Brooklyn Center this weekend in honor of a newly won path to American citizenship for many who have lived here for decades under supposedly temporary legal protections.
But another 2,761 immigrants in Minnesota face a continuing uncertain future under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a separate but similar program that allows those fleeing armed conflicts, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises a chance to live and work here until it is safe to return to their home countries.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently extended TPS for another year and a half for 463 Somalis — 209 of them from Minnesota — following calls from immigration advocates who said that Somalia remained so unsafe that deporting people there would put their lives at risk. The protections were approved in 1991 under President George H.W. Bush after civil war broke out in Somalia and were regularly extended as violence, famine and displacement persisted.
Immigration advocates have voiced concern, however, that an estimated 1,000 Somalis who arrived after 2012 are not covered by those protections because the administration has not "redesignated" the status to include them. Others with TPS status — living in Minnesota after fleeing Honduras and El Salvador, among other places — go through similar cycles of uncertainty when their protections are set to expire.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar wrote a letter to the administration asking for the broader designation for the affected Somalis in addition to the extension of TPS.
"Our letter did call for redesignation, and we're disappointed to not have gotten it, because this just kicks the can further down the road," said Jeremy Slevin, Omar's spokesman.
President Donald Trump has sought to end TPS in the past, saying it isn't meant to be long-term. In some cases, the administration has argued the strife that led to a country's original designation in the program has sufficiently improved.
But lawsuits have blocked changes to TPS for now.
Last fall, the administration extended TPS for a handful of other countries, including El Salvador, which has 1,560 Minnesotans in the program. Another 424 Nepalis and 324 Hondurans from Minnesota were also among the immigrants granted extensions.
The condition that supported Somalia's current designation still exists, along with that for Yemen, which was also granted an extension, said a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is under the Department of Homeland Security. Minnesota has 16 Yemenis in the program.
She added that the designations were implemented by previous administrations and will continue after having been extended nearly 30 times.
Yet beyond redesignating TPS for Somalia, some want to offer TPS holders a path to citizenship.
That's what has Liberians celebrating.
Hundreds of them living in the U.S. under the separate temporary program, Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), were spared imminent deportation and granted a path to American citizenship last month under a measure included in the national defense bill.
Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, who worked on the solution for the Liberians, said Somalis with temporary status also need a long-term solution, even with the most recent reprieve.
"Hundreds of people who would have been forced to leave the United States will not have to abandon the lives they've built in America due to the Department of Homeland Security extending humanitarian protections for Somalia," Smith said in a statement.
The Black Alliance for Just Immigration "really welcomes the extension, but there needs to be a permanent solution for TPS for Somalia," said policy director Mustafa Jumale. He pointed out that the Trump administration supports Somalia's fight against al-Shabab and said Somali TPS holders need to be protected from the terrorist group, too.
"These people have been in limbo for almost three decades — there is nothing temporary about them," he said.
The organization took five TPS holders from other states to Washington, D.C., recently to meet with members of Congress in both parties. But Somali TPS holders that the group works with in Minnesota declined to speak with the Star Tribune, fearing it could jeopardize their immigration cases or put them in danger.
Jaylani Hussein of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations noted the success of Congress in passing protections for Liberians. That "was done in a bipartisan effort, and I think that's the one thing that people need to keep in mind — that these types of solutions have to come from a bipartisan effort," Hussein said.
Erasmus Williams, chairman of the Liberian Immigration Coalition, said he's excited for Somalis over the extension of TPS.
"They have been in the fight with us in our struggle for immigration freedom," he said, "so we need to stand with them, and we'll continue to advocate with them so they can get a pathway to citizenship like we did."
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210