(AP) - President Bush has extended by 18 months the stays of thousands of Liberians living in the United States under temporary protected status.
Because of civil war at home, Liberians have been residing in the United States for nearly two decades.
Following elections in 2005 and modest signs of stabilization in Liberia, the Homeland Security Department lifted their temporary protected status, subjecting them to deportation as of Oct. 1.
"Although the armed conflict in Liberia ended in 2003, and conditions have improved, I have found that the political and economic situation in Liberia continues to be fragile," Bush said in a memo to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
About 3,600 Liberians are living in the U.S. under temporary protected status, federal officials have said, although activists claim there are thousands more.
Liberians are concentrated in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia and Providence, R.I. Although permanent residency is the ultimate goal, any extension is a relief to Liberians living in the U.S.
As many as 25,000 Liberians live in Minnesota, though demographers aren't sure of the population's size. Word of the decision spread quickly among Liberians in the state.
"Thank God. Thank God," said Cleo Harris of Brooklyn Park who, like many others, had contemplated leaving her American-born daughter behind if she were forced to leave.
James Kollie of Brooklyn Park, leader of the Liberian Immigration Solidarity Committee, which demonstrated at the Minnesota State Capitol last spring over the issue, said Bush's decision falls short of the permanent residency many Liberians had been seeking, but it buys them valuable time.
"We are going to start working on the permanent residency goal immediately," Kollie said. "We are going to treat every day as if temporary status ended tomorrow ... and not wait until 17 months have passed."
Minnesota employers and communities where the Liberians live backed their lobbying effort. Many of them work in health care jobs, and their employers feared a serious shortage of workers come October.
Officials in Brooklyn Park also worried that a sudden glut of homes and apartments might depress the city's real estate markets.
Minnesota's entire congressional delegation supported the Liberians' bid to stay at least another year.
"The Liberian community has become an important part of the social fabric of Minnesota - they are our neighbors and our co-workers," Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in a statement. "While Liberia continues to be unstable, it is important that our Liberian community is able to continue to call Minnesota home. This 18-month extension will allow us to continue our pursuit of a more permanent solution."
Freed slaves from the U.S. founded Liberia in the 19th century.
"With Liberia still struggling to rebuild and stabilize following years of civil strife, the country is simply not ready to absorb these people yet, Sen. Norm Coleman said in a separate statement.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)