WASHINGTON D.C. – In a historic and monumental move for the Liberian community in the United States, President Donald Trump has signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 into law. The law contains a key provision facilitating permanent residency for Liberians living in the U.S.
The act could affect thousands of Liberians residents in the U.S. who were previously on Temporary Protected Status, TPS, and Deferred Enforced Deportation, DED, in addition to others who were not granted such protection.
Championed by Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island and his colleagues in both the House and Senate, the law allows for the adjustment of the immigration status for Liberians living in the U.S. on TPS and DED.
The specific language of the bill provides that this privilege “shall apply to any alien who– (A)(i) a national of Liberia; and (ii) has been continuously present in the United States during the period beginning on November 20, 2014.” These privileges also extend to a Liberian whose “(B) is the spouse, child or unmarried son or daughter of an alien described in subparagraph (A).”
Sen. Reed expressed great excitement after the bill was initially passed by the Senate.
“This is a huge win for my Liberian brothers and sisters and a great day for America,” he was quoted as saying in a press release issued by his office. “This provision will adjust the status of Liberians on DED and those formerly on TPS to enable them to apply for permanent residency. Liberians who’ve legally lived here for years, paid taxes, and made so many positive contributions to their various communities, especially in Rhode Island, deserve the opportunity to get on a path to becoming full citizens.”
“These individuals came to America seeking safety from devastating wars and disaster,” Reed continued. “They’ve made a home here, built their lives, and strengthened our communities. America is their home, and they shouldn’t be evicted…. By extending their legal status, we are providing much-needed certainty and a measure of security for individuals while helping foster Liberia’s post-war recovery.”
For many of the estimated 4,000 Liberians expected to benefit under the bill, it has been decades of uncertainties and simply holding their individual and collective breaths.
Triggered by civil wars in Liberian beginning in 1990, many of these Liberians fled their homes for safety in the United States, a country with which Liberia has long historical and cultural lies.
Upon arriving here, many were granted ‘protected’ status by the U.S. Government, allowing them to work, attend schools, and benefit from other programs of assistance. The status has been renewed annually by presidential proclamation until recently when TPS was adjusted to DED, and those still on it, required to return home to Liberia or be deported.
Following the recent outbreak of the deadly Ebola epidemic between 2014 and 2015, which ravaged three West African countries, including Liberia, these populations increased as new waves of Liberians fled the outbreak. Some 4,800 persons died in Liberian alone from the epidemic.
Under ongoing immigrations reforms, President Donald Trump recently declined to sign the annual extension of DED for Liberians, effectively ending the program and requiring beneficiaries to leave the U.S. by March 30, 2020.
But Trump’s actions immediately triggered a frantic campaign by Liberian communities and groups all across the United States, from town halls in small cities to the halls of Congress. More energized advocacies occurred in states such as Minnesota, Rhode Island, Staten Island, and Pennsylvania, which have sizable populations of Liberians.
A major lawsuit was even filed by Liberian groups in the U.S. District Court of Worcester, Massachusetts on Oct. 28 in an effort to compel the president to ensure continued protection for the affected individuals. But Judge Timothy Hillman dismissed the case on the grounds that the court had no authority to compel President Trump to protect Liberians from deportation.
With the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 and the opening of a pathway to citizenship, affected Liberians can breathe a sigh of relief. Meanwhile, many within and outside of the U.S. are expressing excitement.
Wynfred Russell, a native Liberian and councilman on the Brooklyn Park City Council in Minnesota who has long advocated for Liberian interests in the United States, wrote on his Facebook page, “To get to this day was a monumental effort that spanned nearly 30 years involving multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-religious, multi-national, multi-racial folks, and community-based organizations, Democrats, Republicans, unions, and municipal governments to make this happen.”
Wynfred also thanked DED and TPS holders who, according to him, “allowed us to share their stories” in an effort to resolve the deeply consequential situation.
Senator Darius Dillon of Montserrado also weighed in to express excitement: “Special thanks and deep gratitude to the government and people of the U.S.A for moving to grant permanent resident status to our brother and sisters.”
Liberia’s President George Weah also expressed his government’s gratitude for the development during a nationwide radio broadcast on Friday.
Torli Krua, the founder of Universal Human Rights International and perennial advocate for the rights of African immigrants in the U.S., expressed gratitude to the politicians who championed the law, which is also expected to bring relief to a special group of Liberians for whom Krua has been advocating since 2003. [Disclosure: Torli Krua is a relative of the author and a co-owner of The Bush Chicken.]
“By signing the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the Rhode Island congressional delegation’s provisions of the Liberian Refugee Fairness Act, President Trump honored his promise to put the interest of the American people first,” Krua said in an interview. “Liberian refugees and young Americans airlifted by U.S. Marines 17 years ago deserve equal protection like other human beings.”
Earlier this year, Krua had embarked on a tour across the U.S. to raise awareness about what he considers a grossly overlooked group of war-affected Liberian refugees. At that time, Krua said the U.S. government was reneging on its commitment to protect Liberian mothers who accompanied their U.S. children from Liberian during the height of last round of civil war in Liberia 2003.
According to Krua, U.S. Marines, under Operation Shining Express that was ordered by President George Bush on June 12, 2003, permitted Liberian mothers to accompany their U.S. citizen children with the full backing of the U.S. government.
Upon arriving in the U.S., however, these mothers were denied TPS or any other legal status, thus preventing them from working and being able to ensure adequate livelihood.
Although these mothers are not specifically mentioned in the bill, its fairly generic language covers them, as the bill offers the privilege to obtain permanent residency to “an alien who is a national of Liberia; and (ii) has been continuously present in the United States during the period beginning on November 20, 2014.”
“Thanks to Senator [Jack] Reed and Congressman David Cicilline for the success of the Liberian Fairness Bill that ended a generation of injustice,” Krua said, before criticizing American policy makers for taking so long to address the plight of Liberian mothers who had American children when the American government took much shorter time to address citizens of other countries. He noted that similar decisions in the 1990s to grant permanent residency status to victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre and to hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans, Cubans, El Salvadorans, and Guatemalans happened relatively quickly.
“The fact that it took 30 years after the Liberian Civil War was launched from Boston for America to be compassionate to its own citizens and Liberian refugees is noteworthy,” he added.
Featured photo by Eric B. Walker