Liberians again seek extension of protected status

Payne family
The Payne family of Elk River, left to right, Alvin, Alfred, Alfreda, Florence, and Alfred Jr. If President Obama does not extend Deferred Enforcement Deportation (DED), Alfred and Francine Payne could be forced to leave the country at the end of March 2010.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

The clock is ticking once again for thousands of Liberian immigrants who've been living in the U.S. on a legal, but temporary, basis for years.

They could be forced to leave the country at the end of the month -- unless the Obama administration takes action soon to extend their legal status.

Alfred and Florence Payne are counting on President Obama to allow them to stay in the U.S. That's evident at their Elk River home, where there are no signs they could be moving in a few weeks -- in the form of deportation back to Liberia.

The Paynes have three children under the age of 10, all of whom were born in Minnesota. Deportation could divide the family since Alfred Payne says he'd rather send his children to foster care than take them back to his war-torn homeland.

"I would think that would be better than losing their life," Payne said.

Payne recalls some of the danger that caused him and his wife to flee Liberia a decade ago during the country's civil war.

Their house was burned down, they were threatened at gunpoint and they saw people shot to death right in front of them.

They came to the U.S. in 2000 and were granted "temporary protected status. That status has expired and now they live under deferred enforced departure, or DED -- a deportation order that will go into effect April 1 if the president doesn't stop it.

Payne said he and his wife are concerned, but they're trying to hide it from their children.

"I don't want them to have that feeling that we are worried that we'll be deported from here, that we're facing deportation," he said. "We just have to be calm even though we know there's a problem that we have to face shortly."

The Paynes are among about 1,000 Liberians in Minnesota and 4,000 nationwide who face deportation at the end of the month if there's no action from the White House.

Many of them have had a year-to-year existence since 1991 when they first got temporary status. The temporary status for this group has been extended 10 times in the past two decades. And in that time, John Bartee, of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, said they've made America their home.

"You have four, five children here, you have your house and then you've been here for X number of years. Now you left the country when everything you had was destroyed. What are you going to?" Bartee said. "So it's not an issue of whether they want to leave. It's that they've made America their home. Why would they want to go home when they've made America their home?"

"This is not just about people wanting to stay. It's about people have already made this place their home."

Immigration advocates as well as elected officials have appealed to the Obama administration to give Liberians more time.

Rep. Keith Ellison and other members of Minnesota's Congressional delegation sent a letter to the president last month calling for an extension.

Although the civil war has ended, they say Liberia remains unstable. The unemployment rate is high and clean running water and electricity are not available throughout the country. Ellison also said they told the White House they need an answer quickly.

"We've already made it very clear that this is a very important issues to us. We've let them know that we have a community that is anxious," he said. "We can't bring people right up to the brink, as has been happening for the last 20 years."

He's still pushing for a bill that would give this group of Liberians permanent residency in the United States, something the Paynes would like as well.

But right now, they'd be happy with an extension of their current status. That way they could keep their jobs, their home and their family intact.