ST. PAUL-The Trump administration is ending a program that allows citizens of Liberia living in the U.S. - including many in Minnesota - to avoid deportation. But it's allowing a one-year "wind-down" period to ease their return.
Advocates estimated the number of Liberians living in America who are affected by President Donald Trump's decision at 4,000. Minnesota has one of the largest Liberian communities in the U.S.
Liberians have been eligible for Deferred Enforcement Departure since 1999. The program allows them to live and work in the U.S. The program's last extension, by former President Barack Obama, was set to expire on Saturday, March 24.
A memorandum issued by Trump Tuesday, March 27, says conditions in Liberia have improved substantially.
"Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflict and has made significant progress in restoring stability and democratic governance," the memorandum reads, according to the Associated Press. "Liberia has also concluded reconstruction from prior conflicts, which has contributed significantly to an environment that is able to handle adequately the return of its nationals."
The new end date is March 31, 2019.
Advocates for the community denounced the president's decision.
"It is inhumane. It is crude. It is harsh. And it is wholly unnecessary," said Patrice Lawrence, national policy and advocacy director at UndocuBlack Network.
After a civil war broke out in the African country of Liberia about 30 years ago, thousands of residents fled to the United States. Many of them settled in the Twin Cities. Minnesota's Liberian community is often estimated to have grown to about 30,000.
Minnesota Liberians on edge
Abena Abraham of the Minnesota Black Immigrant Collective said conditions in Liberia today are hardly hospitable.
Unemployment exceeds 25 percent, infrastructure is fragile, children are out of school as government workers are currently not being paid, and the health care system is still reeling from the Ebola crisis several years ago, which afflicted 30,000 and killed 11,000 in a country of 4.6 million.
"There's no jobs for people to do," Abraham said during a conference call with reporters. "There's no housing."
Like many in Minnesota's Liberian community, she won't face deportation; her parents were U.S. citizens, and that allowed her to eventually become a citizen as well.
Not so for Caroline Grimes, a Minnesota resident in her 50s, who gained DED protection 17 years ago.
In Liberia, she had completed her bachelor's degree and was planning on beginning a foreign service career in Paris when the civil war broke out.
"We came to the United States with just a bag - not even a suitcase," she said during the same conference call. "We ran."
Once here, she worked in temp agencies as a bilingual customer service representative and office assistant.
"You name it. I worked my way up," she said, emphasizing that she has never taken any public aid. "I put myself through school, and I became a nurse. ... I would think that's part of the American dream ... you've created a life.
"Now to uproot us out of the United States and send us back to Liberia, it's like making us refugees all over again."
How Trump's decision will work
To provide an "orderly transition" and give Liberia's government time to "reintegrate" its returning citizens, beneficiaries will be given a 12-month window during which they're still allowed to live in the U.S. and work until protections end March 31, 2019.
Because Trump's decision contains several avenues for Liberians to remain in America, the actual number of people impacted was not immediately clear Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., criticized Trump's decision as "shameful" Tuesday.
"This decision will rip families apart. It goes against who we are as a nation. It means we'll lose employees, innovators and community leaders that make Minnesota - and our country - a better place."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who co-sponsored the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act in 2011 to allow Liberians living temporarily in the United States the opportunity to apply for permanent residency, vowed to work to reverse the decision.
"These are hard-working people who came to the U.S. legally, have remained here legally, and play a major role in Minnesota's economy, in particular helping to staff our hospitals and nursing homes," Klobuchar wrote in a prepared statement. "Ending their status (which dates back to President George H.W. Bush) and deporting them is the wrong decision. We have a year before the status expires, and during that time, I will do everything to find a solution for these families."
Noting the program was set to end this week, U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican who represents Minnesota's 3rd District, said Trump's decision to add a year "is a reprieve for thousands of Minnesota Liberians."
Paulsen said that year "gives me and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle more time to work toward a permanent solution, and it gives us more time to raise awareness and educate others about what our Liberian community means to Minnesota."