Minnesota's Liberian community is celebrating the passage of a long-awaited measure that gives permanent residency to those who have been living here for decades under temporary protections.
The U.S. Senate on Tuesday approved the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which included an amendment that offered a path to American citizenship for Liberians currently under Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status. The $768 billion spending package, which passed the House last week and President Donald Trump has said he will sign, would prevent the deportation of many Liberians that was set to take place after March 31.
Alice Cooke, 56, was so excited at the news that she found herself running late for her shift as a nursing assistant Tuesday afternoon.
"I feel overwhelmed," said Cooke, who immigrated from Liberia in 1998. "This is the best Christmas the Lord has given me since I came to America."
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. Many Liberians fleeing civil war in the 1990s were given temporary protected status to stay in the U.S. — with no path to citizenship — and became part of the DED program in 2007. They faced the prospect of deportation under administrations of both parties, with continual extensions.
Trump twice moved to end the program, saying Liberians could return to their homeland because conditions in the country had improved: It was no longer experiencing armed conflicts and had recovered from a 2014 outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. But as Liberians' DED status was set to expire on March 31 this year, the administration approved a one-year reprieve.
Liberians in Minnesota this spring vowed to advocate for a permanent solution, noting the uncertainty endured by many in the program who had bought homes, paid taxes, found jobs and had American-born children. They found allies in the home health-care industry, which depends on Liberians for its workforce.
Barkon Greaves, a 53-year-old bus driver in Coon Rapids, said his two U.S.-born teenagers have asked in the past if their parents will be deported.
"To tell my kids I don't know my fate, it's scary," said Greaves, who came here in 1999.
He grew tired of constantly wondering whether his authorization to live and work in the U.S. would end, adding, "The DED they put us on is a threat to our lives."
A solution has been tied up in Congress for years.
The amendment that ends the uncertainty was based on a bill called the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., with Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith as co-sponsors. Minnesota's senators also signed on to the Safe Environment from Countries Under Repression and in Emergency (SECURE) Act, which would have allowed qualified recipients of DED to apply for legal permanent residency. The amendment is expected to affect about 4,000 Liberians living in America.
Usually as the deadline approached, the Rev. Francis Tabla saw uncertainty in the faces of his congregation at Ebenezer Community Church in Brooklyn Park. The community, he said, goes into panic mode. Now, he believes this will be one of the community's most joyous Christmas holidays.
"We don't have adequate words to describe the relief, the joy and celebration that it brings to our community," Tabla said.
Erasmus Williams, chairman of the Liberian Immigration Coalition, said the community was in shock.
"It's something that's overdue," Williams said.
Cooke, of New Hope, had said people were hoping and praying that their uncertain status would end "because it is a nightmare."
She was not able to bring her now-adult children to the U.S. with her in the '90s — they stayed in Liberia — but hopes to start the process if she becomes an American citizen.
After the bill is signed into law, "we will praise our God," said Cooke, predicting much singing and dancing at Ebenezer Community Church. "There will be a good celebration here."