Liberians in Minnesota push for reprieve as deadline to leave United States approaches
By Maya Rao Star Tribune |
The program that has given hundreds of people legal status ends March 31.
These days, Jermon Cooper takes extra time to teach her daughters how to cook their favorite Liberian dishes, reminding the girls that soon she may not be around to do it for them.
“I want them to focus on school so sometimes I just tell them we’ll be OK … But deep down in my heart I know we will not be OK,” said Cooper.
The Ramsey resident is among hundreds of Liberians who will lose their legal status to remain in the United States after March 31, as President Donald Trump ends a program known as Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). She left Liberia in 1999 and became a licensed practical nurse. She gave birth to three children here.
But Trump last March gave those with DED status one year to leave America, saying Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflicts and had recovered from the 2014 outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.
Minnesota is home to one of the largest populations of Liberians in the country after thousands emigrated to the northwest suburbs several decades ago to flee civil war. They were granted temporary status under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, but by 2007 the Department of Homeland Security announced that participants would have to return to Liberia, spurring fear of deportation among Liberians in Minnesota. President George W. Bush approved continued protections under DED that were extended under the Obama administration. In the meantime, some with DED status bought homes and had children who are U.S. citizens. Many took jobs in the healthcare industry.
“We describe it as a crisis in the Liberian community. … People are really, really afraid,” said Erasmus Williams, chairman of the Liberian Immigration Coalition.
Sitting in the office of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM), Williams noted that Liberia was founded in the 19th century by freed black slaves from America.
“Everything that we have in our country, from constitution to policy, came from the United States,” Williams said.
The administration said last year that 840 Liberians had work permits through the program. A spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washing, D.C.-based group that advocates for restricting immigration, said such programs are meant to give people an opportunity to stay in the U.S. based on an unforeseen circumstance in the country — they were never intended to be a way to live here permanently.
“We’ve got to put a stop to the endless extensions. … And that way you don’t run into this situation where someone has been here temporarily for 20 years,” said spokesman Ira Mehlman.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents some Liberians, has worked to connect them with immigration attorneys. With Liberians active in the healthcare industry, senior living and care nonprofit Saint Therese has come out in support of the community. The city councils of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center have passed resolutions calling for those with DED status to have continued protections. Fifty members of Congress, including six from Minnesota, on Friday called for the extension of deportation protections for Liberians.
The community has held fundraisers to support trips to lobby in D.C. On a recent weekend, as Afro pop played on the speakers, OLM sold boxes of homemade food: dishes with cassava leaf, rice, fish and chicken, cornbread, salad, doughnuts and plantain soup.
“I’ve been crying since yesterday,” said Estella Njang, a native of Cameroon helping set up the table of food.
She is married to a Liberian man and came to show her support, though her husband will not be affected. Njang hugged a tearful Liberian woman who was a participant of DED along with her husband and two children, even as a third child was a U.S. citizen. What would she do with the house she had bought? What could she do in Liberia, where she had not visited in decades?
As Ebenezer Community Church in Brooklyn Park held a gathering to pray and raise money for advocacy in D.C., the Rev. George Wonlon called out before a large crowd, “Thank God, amen, amen.”
“Amen!” said the audience.
“We can feel it, something will be done!” Wonlon said.
He explained the long history of the DED program and made the case that Liberians had not done enough to talk about their homeland’s ties to America.
“We’ve got a rich history … Americans don’t know our story,” said Wonlon.
Many have received letters from their jobs saying they’ll lose work if they can’t provide proof of renewed work authorization by the deadline.
“Right now we have people on DED who are afraid to drive, afraid to work, and that’s not a life to live — under the radar, like a fugitive,” said Joel Reeves, OLM’s youth coordinator.
Cooper has delayed going back to school to become licensed as a registered nurse because of the uncertainty of her immigration status. She put off buying a car, even as acquaintances ask her why she doesn’t drive a better one.
“When you’re on DED, you can’t make plans,” said Cooper.
She does not want to leave her daughters, ages 11, 16 and 19. She and others question what they could even go back to, given that Liberia is still mired in poverty.
Help from Congress?
Cooper leaned over a second-floor railing in the Capitol rotunda during a recent rally as a parade of speakers came to advocate for Liberians to stay. Some in the crowd waved signs: Don’t divide our families. President Trump, reinstate and extend DED for Liberians.
“There’s no country in the world as special to the United States as Liberia,” said state Attorney General Keith Ellison, drawing cheers. Ellison noted the country’s American links: it was founded by an act of Congress and its capital city was named after former President James Monroe.
U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, who represents the west metro, said he’d told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that the issue of DED should be included in any conversation about several programs that Trump has tried to crack down on: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects those brought to the U.S. as undocumented youth, as well as Temporary Protected Status for nationals from El Salvador, Honduras and other countries.
“I’m telling every one of my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, how important that is,” he said.
Phillips and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis are sponsoring legislation that would allow Liberians with DED status to stay in the country and offer them a path to American citizenship. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have signed on to a bill in the upper house.
Cooper tries to keep her humor about her, routinely joking about the deadline with a Liberian co-worker.
“We laugh about it but deep down in our hearts, we know it’s serious,” Cooper said.
Back in Liberia, her mother and siblings depend on her to send money. With the deadline looming, however, she recently declined to contribute to a relative’s wedding in Liberia.
A year ago, Cooper said, she felt grateful for the one-year reprieve that gave her more time to hug her children and laugh with them. But it hasn’t been enough time to prepare for the move after living somewhere for 20 years.
“I go to bed at night and I think, ‘What’s Plan B? What happens next?’ ” she said.