As the Ebola epidemic picked up in Shelf Sheriff's native Liberia last fall, he came to visit a sister living in the Twin Cities.

Sheriff, a manager at a steel corporation in the capital, Monrovia, planned to stick around for a month or two. Then, the U.S. government offered him a chance to stay well into 2016.

Last November, the Obama administration included Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — the three West African countries hardest-hit by the Ebola crisis — in a program called Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. It allows natives of countries racked by man-made or natural upheavals to stay and work in the United States, regardless of their immigration status.

The Twin Cities West African community, one of the largest in the United States, lobbied for inclusion in the program. Now, even as the epidemic in West Africa has subsided, some Twin Cities advocates are calling for an extension and cautioning that an end of the program would thrust many into the immigration shadows.

"The post-Ebola environment is really tough," said Abdullah Kiatamba, head of the nonprofit African Immigrant Services. "I don't think it's the best idea for folks to return home."

Repeated extensions for some of the 10 other countries in the TPS program have led opponents to argue it grants indefinite haven to thousands who happened to be in the United States when misfortune struck their homelands. Immigrant advocates have their own misgivings that TPS places recipients in an immigration limbo.

Nationally, nearly 5,900 natives of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea applied before the window closed this summer — both some like Sheriff who came during the epidemic and others who had lived in the United States for years.

Fleeing Ebola

Days before Sheriff left Liberia last year, he ran into an old acquaintance. The man held out his hand. In a bid to make light of the deadly contagion, Sheriff tucked his hands under his armpits and exclaimed, "Oh, no, I am not shaking your hand."

Within days of arriving in Minnesota, Sheriff heard the man had died of Ebola.

The pace of new infections and deaths in Liberia picked up in the following weeks. Sheriff's mother in Monrovia and his sister, a nursing assistant in Brooklyn Park, insisted he stay put. But his visitor's visa would soon expire, and he didn't want to be in the country illegally.

Then in November, President Obama granted 18 months of TPS to natives of the three Ebola-affected countries who were already in the United States. In the Twin Cities, West African natives welcomed the news.

"This news was a big relief for people in our community," said Wynfred Russell, a Liberian community leader.

More than 40,000 from the three countries live in the Twin Cities, most of them in the north metro. It's hard to say how many relatives and friends traveled to Minnesota to flee the epidemic last year. Kiatamba estimates between 500 and 1,000 might have arrived.

Nationally, the number of visitor visas granted to natives of the three countries jumped more than 25 percent last fiscal year over 2013, for a total of 9,550.

Jonathan Rose, a Sierra Leone community leader, believes arrivals from his homeland were relatively small. While local West Africans collected medical supplies for their homelands, some discouraged their relatives from traveling to Minnesota. They feared travelers would bring the disease and the stigma that came with it, especially after a Liberian man died of Ebola in a Dallas hospital.

Russell advised his brother against coming for a different reason. He pointed out the brother, a co-worker of Sheriff's at the steel company, had a career in Monrovia. If he ended up staying in the United States, he'd have to start from scratch.

"I thought he could do way better there and ride out the epidemic as long as he took some precautions," Russell said.

But, says Russell, his brother decided to travel to Minnesota last fall after all. Bodies lay on some sidewalks in Monrovia, and a health system strained by the country's civil war in the 1990s was completely overwhelmed. In his mind, opportunity awaited in "the land of milk and honey," as Russell put it.

"Folks told us, 'It's easy for you guys to sit in America and tell us to just stay put,' " he said.

Program detractors

Critics of Temporary Protected Status such as conservative pundit Michelle Malkin have said that the program is not temporary at all in many cases. They charge it offers seemingly open-ended "amnesty" to immigrants, some of whom crossed the border illegally or overstayed visas. For instance, the government has repeatedly extended TPS for Honduras, originally granted after Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998.

David North of the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies says he doesn't think the U.S. government should deport people to a country grappling with a deadly epidemic. But he says giving immigrants an 18-month deportation reprieve and a work permit is an "overreaction." He mocks the administration for extending the application window after the World Health Organization declared Liberia Ebola-free in May.

"This is like flooding the basement to put out a fire in a wastebasket," he said.

The United States offered TPS to Liberia and Sierra Leone during the civil wars there in the 1990s. Those programs were discontinued in the mid-2000s, but the government continued to block deportations to Liberia.

Among the dozen West Africans the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center in St. Paul assisted this year were a TPS applicant who arrived in the weeks before the November announcement — and one who had lived in the United States on temporary status since 1991. For most immigrants, TPS doesn't offer a path to stay permanently.

"If they don't have an immediate relative who is a U.S. citizen," said John Keller, the center's executive director, "they will always be stuck in TPS."

What's next

With the work permit he received through the TPS program, Sheriff quickly found a job in quality control for a company that manufactures reading lenses. It's an entry-level position, but that doesn't bother him.

Sheriff spent almost a decade as a refugee in Ghana during his country's civil war. Life in Minnesota is easier, and the large north metro African community makes the Twin Cities feel more like home.

"Even in Liberia, we started from somewhere to get to where we were," he said.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn't have state-level data on applications. It has approved more than 85 percent of applications processed so far.

Local West African community leaders say the program allowed the visitors to work — in factories, nursing homes and restaurants, among other workplaces — and send money back home. Remittances, which even before the epidemic made up 20 percent of Liberia's GDP, are giving struggling local economies some juice.

Even with the immediate threat of contagion gone, community leaders acknowledge, most TPS recipients have no intention of heading back to Africa anytime soon. They are making the case the government should give beneficiaries more time when the initial 18 months run out in May. They warn otherwise, many will likely join the ranks of the estimated 90,000 people living in Minnesota illegally.

Russell still has some mixed feelings about the program. His brother continues to look for a job, and Russell can't shake the feeling he would have been better off if he'd remained in Liberia. Besides, Liberia badly needs educated professionals to help rebuild, he said: "How are we going to turn this around with all this brain drain?"

Sheriff expects he will stay as long as the government extends TPS.

"It's difficult to stay away from your country," he said. Still, he added, "Friends back home tell me things aren't what they were."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781