Magdalene Menyongar has missed all of her mom's birthday celebrations in the nearly three decades since she fled to the United States from her war-torn home in Liberia.
She's trying to get back for her mom's 100th birthday party in April, but if Menyongar leaves, she might not be able to return to Maple Grove, the northwestern suburb where she started a family and a new life.
Menyongar has struggled for more than a year to benefit from a 2019 federal provision — known as the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act — that gives Liberian nationals who have lived in the U.S. for years a path to a green card and permanent residency.
The application process has been hampered by a slow launch and burdensome procedures, meaning only a small fraction of the thousands of Liberians who are eligible have actually gone through the process. For Menyongar, it's meant thousands of dollars in fees at a time when she's behind in rent and struggling to find steady work in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. She's had to pick up a second job.
"It's not easy to go to work, come home and make sure you're not affecting your family and then on top of it you are dealing with this," she said. "I've been waiting for almost 30 years. While I am working in health care and taking care of other people's parents, it hurts that I can't go home to see my own mom."
It's the latest in a decadeslong saga for Liberians in the U.S., including the more than 30,000 who live in Minnesota, the largest community in the country.
Since 1991, the U.S. has been a safe haven for Liberians who were forced to flee their country during armed conflict. The conflict ended in 2003, but former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama used executive actions to allow them to stay in the country, first through Temporary Protected Status and then through Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), which has to be renewed every year.
But in 2018, Donald Trump's administration said the situation had improved in Liberia and another extension of DED was not needed, a lapse that could have triggered the deportations of thousands of Liberians living in the U.S.
Menyongar and a group of other Liberians decided to speak out about their situation, risking their own deportation. She became known as the "DED Queen," traveling to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers.
"Under the Trump administration, thousands of my constituents lived in terror that they would be deported to a country that they have not called home for decades," said U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat who represents a large number of Liberians living in Minnesota's Fifth District.
After pressure from members of Minnesota's delegation, Trump agreed to a DED extension and Congress passed the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness provision in December 2019, designed to give lawful permanent residency to Liberian nationals who have lived in the U.S. continuously since Nov. 20, 2014.
Their spouses and children would also be eligible for residency, as long as they hadn't been convicted of aggravated felonies. But it hasn't been easy for Liberians who are now trying to apply for permanent status.
Last year, it took months and several tries for the federal government to finally accept Linda Clark's application for her green card, and now it's been more than six months since she's heard anything on the status of her application.
Clark, a Minneapolis resident who works at Wells Fargo, has no criminal record and has lived in the U.S. for two decades. Her son was 2 years old when she fled Liberia. He's still there and turns 23 this year. She can see over video calls that he has a beard now. "I'm just anticipating the green card coming so I can go and at least to see him face to face," she said. "To feel him and hold him, that motherly love."
Problems like what Clark experienced prompted Congress to extend the deadline to apply for the program until the end of 2021. And one of the first acts of Joe Biden's administration was to extend DED status until June 2022, so Liberians would still be able to live and work in the U.S. as they go through the lengthy process.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said she met with Department of Homeland Security then-Secretary appointee Alejandro Mayorkas to discuss the challenges for the Liberian community in collecting the right paperwork and understanding the process for applying. But an even bigger barrier is a lack of trust in the federal government.
"Many of them just didn't trust that this was real," the Minnesota Democrat said. "They were looking at the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration around immigrants and deportation and just didn't want anything to do with it. What we're trying to do is change that story and trying to be responsive."
Omar said the Liberian community in Minnesota needs an easier pathway to full citizenship "without any cumbersome legal barriers." Under the federal law, anyone who gets a green card could then apply for citizenship.
Menyongar has sent in her application several times, but nothing's happened yet. She brought on a lawyer to help her with the process because it's so burdensome, another expense she can't afford. She said it's a blessing that her mother has held on all these years she's been away from Liberia, but at her mother's age, things can suddenly turn for the worse.
"If something goes wrong with my mom," she said, "whether I've got the green card or not, I'm going."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042