Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told Minnesota's large Liberian population Friday she supports the bid by many to obtain permanent U.S. residency but also hopes some return to participate in her country's rebuilding.
Sirleaf spoke to several thousand people at the University of Minnesota. The audience was filled with local Liberian residents, who make up one of the largest concentrations of Libereans in the United States.
President Johnson Sirleaf touted the accomplishments of her presidency before the capacity crowd.
"The restoration of infrastructure and basic services is well on course. Electricity and pipe-borne water have been restored to certain areas of the capital for the first time in fourteen years," she said.
Sirleaf said she is working to improve infrastructure and educational opportunities and to eliminate the national debt.
Sirleaf became president of Liberia in 2006 after spending time in prison under the previous military dictatorship. She said her west African country is making great progress on rebuilding infrastructure, debt relief and education after a 14-year civil war.
"Perhaps the best progress we have achieved is the restoration of hope," she said.
Kerper Dwanyen, 49, president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, called Sirleaf's visit noteworthy. "There's a lot of excitement in our community around her trip," he said. "She really symbolizes the rebirth of the country."
More than 250,000 Liberians live in the U.S. Dwanyen estimates roughly 35,000 of them reside in Minnesota.
When Liberia was plagued by war in the 1990s, the U.S. granted temporary protective status to thousands of Liberians. The temporary order has been extended several times shortly before it was to expire, leaving affected Liberians anxious about their fate. Currently, about 3,600 Liberians in the U.S. have the status.
Most recently, in late March, President Barack Obama signed an executive order authorizing an extension of deferred enforced departure for Liberians, allowing those with the temporary status to remain in the U.S. through March 2010.
Sirleaf said Liberians living outside her country are welcome at home, but she also understands some now have obligations in the U.S. "We would like to work with Congressman Patrick Kennedy and others who are pushing to give them permanent status," Sirleaf said.
Although those with temporary status represent a small fraction of the Liberian population locally - perhaps 1,000 people - Dwanyen said the issue is far-reaching. "The entire community is interwoven," he said. Forcing local Liberians under temporary status to leave would create a void in families and workplaces, he said.
Thelma Dukuly, 50, a Liberian from Minneapolis, who came to see Sirleaf with several of her children, their cousins and friends, said she's not impacted by deferred enforced departure but feels for a friend who is. The issue "worries a whole lot of people," she said.
In the past, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has said temporary protected status was meant to be just that - temporary.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)