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Liberians hope for reprieve

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Hoping to stay in the U.S.
Kirkpatrick Weah hopes President Bush or President-elect Obama will extend his temporary residency in the United States.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

Kirkpatrick Weah's life in hanging in limbo right now.  

The Brooklyn Center man has been reduced to part-time work because the grant that funded his position as a drug prevention counselor has run out.  And he said it's been difficult finding a full-time job -- but not just because the economy is bad.  

Weah recently interviewed for a position for which he said he was well-qualified.  And he said he believed his potential employer also thought he was qualified.  But then the employer looked at Weah's immigration documents.   

"And he said, 'Oh, you have two to three months to be in the country.' I said, 'Yeah, hopefully, but I think it will be extended.'  He said, 'Yeah, but there's no guarantee. I've hired people like you before, so I don't know what I will do.'  And I just knew straight out I would not be accepted," said Weah.

Kerper Dwanyen
Kerper Dwanyen, president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, says if Liberians must leave the U.S., the impact would be felt beyond the Liberian community.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

Weah is one of about 4,000 Liberians across the country who've been living in the U.S. under a temporary status for years.  And unless something changes, they'll all have to leave the country at the end of March when their deportation order goes into effect.   

Weah hopes that before leaving office next week, President Bush will extend the time for them to stay in the country.  If that doesn't happen, he hopes the incoming Obama administration will give Liberians more time.  

But Weah said the waiting, and the year-to-year existence of his temporary legal status over the last decade, are taking their toll.   

"It's difficult because almost at the end of the year, you worry as to what will happen to you at the end of the year, whether it will be renewed or not," said Weah. "It comes with a lot of stress, depression, and what to do next if the TPS or DED is not renewed."

TPS is Temporary Protected Status, which has been offered to Liberians since 1991 because of the civil unrest in their country.  It was renewed every year until 2007.  That's when President Bush authorized DED, or Deferred Enforced Departure.  That extended the time Liberians on TPS could stay in the county legally, but it also set a deportation date of March 31, 2009.    

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said Liberians need more time.  Last month, he asked for that in letters he sent to President Bush and to the transition team for President-elect Obama.  He told them Liberia isn't ready yet, citing, as one reason, the 80 to 85 percent unemployment rate there.  

"People are hustling and doing things and trying to make it day to day, but the economy is significantly imperiled.  And if you were to drop thousands of new workers right in the middle of Monrovia, you'd cause social disruption to that society," said Ellison. "And you'd cut off a large number of remittances that are sent back to Liberia, which is an important part of what the Liberian economy depends on as it's trying to get  back on its feet.  This is the wrong time to give that kind of a shock to Liberia."  

Ellison said he hasn't received a response to his letters yet.  

If Liberians leave the country, the impact would be felt beyond the Liberian community, says Kerper Dwanyen, president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota.  Dwanyen said the number of foreclosures in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, where many Liberians live, could increase.   

"The schools are faced with the loss of enrollment, employers are faced with the loss of employees," Dwanyen said. "Businesses will close down and that situation mirrors itself across the country."

And the possibility of deportation would pose an immediate dilemma for Kirkpatrick Weah.  He has two young American-born sons who both need special education.  He'd have to decide whether to take them with him to Liberia, where the schools may not offer the programs that can help them succeed, or whether to leave them in the U.S.  

Weah is cautiously optimistic that it won't come to that.  He said he exchanged letters with Obama when the President-elect was in the Senate, and Weah is encouraged that Obama is aware of Liberians' concerns.