The Twin Cities Liberian community’s push to salvage a deportation reprieve program for Liberia natives came up short as the Trump administration announced Tuesday it will end the program in 12 months.
Deferred Enforced Departure, DED, has offered work permits and deportation protections since 2007, when it replaced a similar temporary reprieve program put in place during Liberia’s brutal civil war in the 1990s. The administration for the first time reported Tuesday that about 840 people nationally now have work permits through the program; that suggested the cancellation’s impact might be more limited than feared by local Liberian leaders, some of whom disputed the estimate.
Liberians in the metro, which hosts one of the largest West African enclaves in North America, mounted an active lobbying push to save the program, slated to expire at the end of next March. They argued its cancellation would deal a blow not only to numerous longtime residents but also to local nursing homes and other care facilities, where many Liberians work. Eight of the 10 members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation signed a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to extend the program.
But in a Tuesday memorandum, Trump said it was time to wrap up DED after a yearlong “orderly transition” period during which recipients can explore alternative routes to stay or prepare to leave by March 31, 2019.
“Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflict and has made significant progress in restoring stability and democratic governance,” the memo said, adding that the country has also bounced back from a 2014 deadly outbreak of Ebola.
The administration in recent months has set out to end similar temporary reprieve programs for several Central American countries. A Department of Homeland Security official said Tuesday that it was now up to Congress to come up with a permanent solution for DED recipients, invoking 1998 legislation that opened a path to citizenship for Haitians on DED at the time.
Local Liberian leaders disagreed with the administration’s assessment of conditions in Liberia. They said their homeland is still struggling with high unemployment and the after-effects of the Ebola crisis. They also insisted more people are affected than the government estimates, in part because some might have let their work permits lapse even as they still rely on the program’s deportation protections. They pointed to a 2007 government estimate that put the number of people eligible for DED at 4,200.
Caroline Grimes, a local DED recipient in her 50s, said that after working and paying taxes in the United States for 17 years, the prospect of returning to Liberia with its nonexistent safety net for the elderly is daunting.
She said she fled the country’s civil war and worked a string of office jobs in Minnesota before putting herself through nursing school and starting a medical career.
“To uproot us from the United States and send us back to Liberia is like being a refugee all over again,” she said. “This is so disheartening.”
Leaders vowed to continue pressing for a route to permanent residence for affected Liberians.
“This buys us time,” said Abdullah Kiatamba of the local nonprofit African Immigrant Services. “It removes some of the fear and anxiety — at least for a while.”
Beneficiaries of the program will get an automatic extension through September, but they will need to apply to renew their work permits for the final six months.
Minnesota lawmakers issued statements pledging to work on passing the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act in the U.S. House and Senate — legislation that would open a path to citizenship for DED recipients and others.
Rep. Keith Ellison, who has reintroduced that legislation since 2011, criticized the decision, calling DED recipients “long-standing contributors to our country.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar noted another option would be to get the administration to reverse its decision.
“The additional year gives me and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle more time to work toward a permanent solution,” Rep. Erik Paulsen said, “and it give us more time to raise awareness and educate others about what our Liberian community means to Minnesota.”