Liberians in Minnesota face a return to a homeland still reeling from civil war

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Frank Alan has been living in the United States on Temporary Protected Status since 1993. He may be forced to leave the county in October if the U.S. doesn't extend TPS.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

Frank Alan was tortured during Liberia's civil war. The 52-year-old is a tall, thin bespectacled man who sought refuge in Minnesota in 1993 following his country's civil war in the 1980's and 1990's.

The West African nation is more politically stable these days. There were democratic elections last year. The Bush administration says Liberia is safe enough for Alan and other Liberians to return home. But Alan says he's not ready to go back.

"I have no guarantee that if I go home, my life will be spared. I escaped because of the civil war. The fear I have is, I still have enemies in that country which I do know, some are still around," he said.

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Frank Alan keeps pictures of his four children on display. He hasn't seen his three oldest children since he left Liberia.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

As of October 7, 2007 Alan's status to live in the United States legally expires. Alan is one of an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 Liberians in Minnesota -- about 10 percent of whom are on here on TPS. TPS was first offered to Liberians in 1991 and it's been extended every year since. But federal officials are refusing to extend it again.

Alan's home is a small non-descript basement apartment in the less luxurious part of downtown Minneapolis, a few blocks south of the Metrodome and a few blocks north of the nursing home where he's worked as a dietician for the last 12 years. He says he works hard and stays out of trouble and he wants to keep his humble life.

He wants the United States to grant him and other Liberians on TPS permanent residency. He says they've earned it because of their responsible behavior over the years.

"My only plea is let the U.S. government help some of us who have been here for all these years, have committed no crimes, paid taxes. Let us have some consideration on us," he said.

If I have to leave to go back to my country, I'd prefer to die in jail.

Alan and other Liberians say the country hasn't recovered from its 14 years of civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by the civil unrest and peacekeepers from the United Nations still stand guard in the country. Only a few health facilities have reopened. There is some water service and electricity has only been restored to parts of the capital city of Monrovia in the past year.

On a trip to the United States earlier this month, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf touted these milestones as improvements. But even she's appealing to U.S. lawmakers to allow Liberians to remain in this country a little while longer.

"If all of a sudden 200,000 Liberians descended on us, we wouldn't know what to do in terms of jobs and housing and all the things to which they're entitled. But we do want to see them, as they've started to trickle back on a voluntary basis. We do hope this country will allow them refuge as they try to make this decision and transfer in an orderly way consistent with our ability to absorb them," she said.

Washington Yonly has lived in the United States on Temporary Protected Status since 1998. Yonly says he's baffled that the United States, which hasn't recovered from some of its own recent natural disasters, believes that war-torn Liberia has bounced back quickly enough for its nationals to return home.

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Frank Alan holds a picture of his oldest daughter. It's as close as he's come to seeing her since he left Liberia in 1993.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

"You have disaster, you have fire, flooding, all the parts of America, where the riches, where the money, where everything is available. And it's not so easy to rebuild those places and let people back into those places. But for her (President Johnson-Sirleaf) to have taken power one year and the American government to come and say 'it's OK, you can go home now,' it's so disturbing," he said.

Yonly lives in Brooklyn Park on a street dotted by homes with neatly-manicured lawns that are brown with the winter season. The city is home to a large population of Liberians. The city's economic and redevelopment director, Joel Spoonheim, says if Yonly and other Liberians are forced to leave, the city could take a big hit, since many Liberians there are homeowners.

"What we predict could end up happening is those who live there will see their market home values decline, which will decrease investment in those who are left behind and their long-term residence. We're also concerned that the houses that go on the market would convert to rental or go to boarded homes," he said.

But so far, Homeland Security officials, who oversee immigration in the U.S., are standing firm on their ruling that TPS is ending for Liberians. Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, says the Liberians will be forced to leave.

"If they don't leave by October 1 and they haven't obtained legal status in another form, they will be subject to removal from the U.S. They will be living here illegally," she said.

In the past, the United States has granted permanent residency to people here on TPS. Legislation is expected to be introduced in Congress once again that would do just that for Liberians. Previous attempts have failed.

Meanwhile, time is running out for Liberians like Frank Alan. He applied for and was denied political asylum. Now he's hoping he can win his appeal. If that doesn't happen, he says he doesn't want to live in this country illegally. But he has no plans to return to Liberia.

"If I have to leave to go back to my country, I'd prefer to die in jail," he said.

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