Liberians want to stay in Minnesota

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Their faces somber, about 300 Liberians gathered in a church in Plymouth, a few miles from Brooklyn Park, on a chilly Sunday evening in January. Tension and fear sounded in their voices as they chatted, waiting to find out how they could petition U.S. legislators, to extend the temporary immigration status of about 1000 Liberians in Minnesota. They hope that they will eventually be granted U.S. residency. With about two months before their permission to remain in the U.S. expires, an immediate extension is preferred, as it would take immigration officials longer to process the paperwork needed for residency.

About 18 months ago, President Bush granted an extension to this same group of Liberians. They were originally granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in 1991. President Bush’s order gave them only Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status, and set an expiration date of March 31.

Sarah Smith handed out fliers with instructions on calling legislators. “Make sure you call them,” she told one person after the next.

Call to Action
(Information furnished by Jewish Community Action)
Call upon President Obama to immediately extend Deferred Enforcement Departure by contacting the White House in writing (1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20500) or calling 202-456-1111. Call your Congressional Representatives or Senators to urge their support of Liberians. Ask them to support legislation for permanent resident status for Liberians (HR 194/S 656). Contact the Capitol switchboard (202-224-3121) and ask to be connected to your senators and representatives.

This action is being conducted by the Coalition for Permanent Residency, including Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, Jewish Community Action, The Advocates for Human Rights, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and others.

Smith was more than a little distressed. What happens to her family when her TPS status expires on March 31?

“My family will be broken,” she said.

Smith has lived in Minnesota for nine years. For each of those years, she has paid a fee to maintain this temporary status. An immigrant under TPS is required to re-register annually with the USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services), and to pay an annual fee for a work permit.

When she moved here, Smith’s daughter was only a year old and the two of them were granted temporary immigration status. Her son, through his father, has a green card, so he will not be deported. She could move back to Liberia with her children, but with no formal training, Smith is at pains to see how she can support herself and her children in a country whose unemployment rate is over eighty per cent.

Liberia, a West African nation, is recovering from a civil war that started in 1980, and just ended in 2003. A broken, but recovering infrastructure is ill-equipped to support a sudden influx of deportees from the United States.

Kerper Dwanyen, the president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM) has been working to engage his community in finding a permanent immigration solution. Dwanyen warns that, “the emerging democracy of Liberia faces a period of critical rebuilding.”

“Forced repatriation,” he said, “threatens the stability of Liberia and the West Africa region.”

Liberians in the United States send thousands of dollars in remittances that are instrumental in the country’s rebuilding.

Dr. Bruce Corrie, a professor of economics at Concordia University in Saint Paul argued that the healthcare sector in Minnesota will suffer profoundly should this group of Liberians be deported come March.

Liberians in Minnesota
from Advocates for Human Rights website
Temporary protected status was first offered to Liberians in 1991 due to dangerous conditions resulting from the 14-year civil war in Liberia. Temporary protected status has been extended every year since 1991. It is estimated that there are between 4,000 and 10,000 Liberians under temporary protected Status in the United States. An estimated 25,000 Liberians live in Minnesota, one of the largest Liberian communities outside of West Africa.

While the United States now considers Liberia to be politically stable, there are still serious concerns with the Liberian economy. Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world and currently has an unemployment rate of 80 percent.

“4,000 people who identify as Liberian work in the healthcare sector,” Corrie said.

His research on this community resulted in a finding that shows an enormous financial contribution to the Minnesotan economy. “The Liberian buying power is an estimated $157 million dollars which is almost as large as the 2007-2008 Liberian national budget of $199 million dollars.”

Corrie said that while Liberians are a minority in the healthcare sector, their employment in the healthcare field has created more than 12,000 jobs and, should the 300 Liberians on TPS be deported, then Minnesota should expect loss in earnings of about $300 million.

A thirty-five year old woman, speaking on condition of anonymity told the Daily Planet that she has little job security. An accountant by training, she now works in a nursing home because no one else was willing to hire her on a temporary status. Her living expenses are enormous because her parents, with whom she lives, are ailing. While one of them receives state healthcare, the other is on TPS and has to pay for medical expenses out of pocket.

She lamented her financial situation, saying, “It’s as if the hole is getting deeper and deeper.”

The Advocates for Human Rights, a Minnesota-based human rights organization with a global lens, and Jewish Community Action are working closely with the Liberian community to put pressure on legislative change.

Vic Rosenthal, the executive director of JCA spoke at the January 25 gathering, urging the Liberian community to create alliances with other immigrant groups who are on TPS. These groups include: Burundi, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.

Michelle Garret-McKenzie, from the Advocates for Human Rights, warned about the ‘new face” of immigration.

“Minnesota has hundreds more immigration officers on the ground than they did two years ago,” she said. “They are ready to deport you come April first.”

Garret-McKenzie urged the Liberian community to increase their efforts in getting their voices heard,

Amid cheers from the audience, Congressman Erik Paulsen promised to work tirelessly in Congress to push for an extension of TPS.

Wynfred Russell, a Liberian community activist and the director of the Center for Multicultural Studies at Normandale College, is “cautiously optimistic that something will be done before March 31st.”

In a telephone interview with the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Russell said, “Since the 18-month extension by President Bush, grassroots organizations have been working with Minnesota legislators keep the issue alive.”

He explained that changing the immigration status for a whole group of people is “a long and complicated political process”.

In a letter to Congress in December, Rep Keith Ellison wrote a letter to then President-elect, now President Barack Obama urging him to extend the Liberian TPS. In the letter, Ellison said that Liberians after fleeing the war in Liberia have established careers, pay taxes, are raising American-born children, and have firmly established themselves in their local U.S. communities.

Nekessa Opoti is the publisher of kenyaimagine.com, a Kenyan online magazine and newspaper and also is editor of Mshale, a Minnesota-based African community newspaper.

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