Maya Rao and Paul Walsh
Isabella Wreh-Fofana screamed with joy when she heard the news that the Trump administration had approved another year’s delay in removing immigration protections for Liberians living in the United States.
The White House announcement on Thursday came just before she was to appear at the State Capitol alongside Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and fellow Liberians to advocate for an extension of the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) program, which was set to end Sunday. Wreh-Fofana and hundreds of Liberians faced deportation to West Africa many years after resettling here to escape civil war.
“It’s too emotional,” Wreh-Fofana said of repeatedly waiting for extensions. “It’s scary.”
Liberians and their political advocates praised President Donald Trump’s decision but called for comprehensive immigration reform and said they would immediately renew work on a legislative remedy that would offer those with DED status a pathway to citizenship.
Minnesota’s senior U.S. senator, Amy Klobuchar, hailed the move by the man she hopes to succeed as president.
“The vision of them taking grandma in her wheelchair, after she’s been here 30 years, back to a country [where] she hasn’t been for decades — it just didn’t make a lot of sense,” Klobuchar said in an interview.
Isabella Wreh-Fofana said she yelled with joy upon learning about the extension Thursday. Wreh-Fofana said she came to Minnesota in 2002 seeking medical care for her son's heart condition.
She said Congress must make a priority of finding a permanent fix, but she expressed concern that a year from now, “We might well be back in this same situation, which just seems absurd.”
Liberian refugees were initially authorized to stay in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) approved by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. The protections continued under DED in 2007 under President George W. Bush — with no pathway to apply for permanent residency — but Trump announced last spring that conditions in Liberia had improved regarding the war and the Ebola virus and gave the program one year to wind down.
In his directive to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Thursday, Trump said that he had decided it was in America’s foreign policy interest to extend DED through March 30, 2020. “The overall situation in West Africa remains concerning and Liberia is an important regional partner for the United States,” Trump’s directive said. “The reintegration of [DED program] beneficiaries into Liberian civil and political life will be a complex task, and an unsuccessful transition could strain United States-Liberian relations and undermine Liberia’s post-civil war strides toward democracy and political stability.”
Ellison has spearheaded a legal effort by 10 attorneys general to support a lawsuit by Liberians to block the termination of their DED protections.
The plaintiffs sued Trump and Nielsen this month, asking Massachusetts U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman for a nationwide preliminary injunction. Ellison argued that Minnesota, which has one of the nation’s largest Liberian communities, would see its health and social services industries harmed because many Liberians work in those sectors, which already are beset by worker shortages. Wreh-Fofana, a resident of St. Paul who moved here in 2002, is a nursing assistant.
Minnesota is home to nearly 16,000 people who were born in Liberia or claim Liberian ancestry.
“The Trump administration looked at the case against them and realized they were probably going to lose the motion for a preliminary injunction in court … so they did what they should have done in the first place,” Ellison said.
He added: “Making people ride this roller-coaster year after year is inhumane, hurts families and wreaks havoc on our economy and communities. It’s no way for any Minnesotan to live.”
Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of African Immigrant Services in Minnesota and a national voice in the push for extension, said that ending the program “would have separated families … [and] caused so many problems in our community.”
Ebenezer Community Church, which has been active in pushing for the extension, is anticipating a jubilant congregation on Sunday. But minister Chea Jerboh noted, “We don’t want to go back to the same situation so we have to keep the pressure on. … We want to lobby those who are in power to come up with a bill that can pass.” The Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, which has worked with the church on DED, is planning a town hall on Friday at 5:30 p.m. at its Brooklyn Center office to discuss how to address the matter before the next deadline.
Trump’s directive expressed a desire to give Congress time as it “considers remedial legislation” that would make repeatedly granting one-year extensions unnecessary. U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., vowed to wake up the next morning and get back to finding cosponsors for his bipartisan bill with U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., that would move DED holders into TPS for the next three years.
“Immigration is a complicated issue here in Congress and it’s going to take a lot of investment in time and energy and coalition-building to get it done,” Phillips said.
House Democrats also introduced the Dream and Promise Act this month to give immigrants under DED, TPS and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) the option to seek permanent legal status.
“We’re not going to sleep. … We have to have a congressional fix for this,” said Imam Mohammed Dukuly, a community leader who recently spoke on DED at a news conference in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
He suggested the possibility of going to D.C. to lobby for a solution on Monday.