Liberians, other immigrants fret that legal status may end soon

Abena Abraham had Temporary Protected Status for about 15 years.
Abena Abraham had Temporary Protected Status for about 15 years until she became a permanent resident two years ago.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Abena Abraham, 21, moved to Minnesota when she was 4 years old. So she really doesn't remember much about her home country of Liberia — just the stories her mom tells her. Like this one:

"The day that I was born, there was a massive takeover of the capital city. They had to wrap me in blankets and put me outside in the sun while bullets and rockets were flying."

With a civil war raging around them, it wasn't safe for Abraham and her family to stay. They fled Liberia and made their way to the United States, where Abraham's mother was first granted asylum. Then they got Temporary Protected Status, or TPS.

That program, and the Deferred Enforced Departure initiative, are a humanitarian effort meant to help people whose home countries have been struck by war or natural disaster. Thousands of people in Minnesota have benefited. Now the Trump administration is preparing to end the protection that became a part of Abraham's family history.

"My mom would lift me up at the counter and they'd take my picture and get my thumb print," she said. "I didn't really know what was going on. It was a cool experience to me because I always got a treat from the immigration officer."

Abraham remembers going through that process often. That's because TPS allows people from certain countries to stay in the United States for a renewable 12- to 18-month period. It's an executive action by the president, covering about a dozen countries designated because of natural disaster or violent conflicts. Among them are El Salvador, Nepal and Syria. More than 400,000 people have been granted reprieve from deportation.

Recently, Homeland Security decided to end the program for Nicaragua and Honduras. And this week, the agency said Haitians will lose protection in 2019. Officials say extraordinary conditions caused by the 2010 earthquake no longer apply.

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said the U.S. government's own State Department has reported that Haiti isn't fit to take back 60,000 people.

"If Haiti is the standard by which other countries are going to be measured, and this administration has said that Haiti is able to take folks back, they're simply not doing any meaningful analysis," he said.

Now about 6,500 Liberians nationwide think they won't be able to get another extension beyond March of next year. Minnesota is home to the largest Liberian community in the country. Liberians here have been able to work, buy homes and go to school. Many of them have benefited from TPS for nearly 30 years.

Abraham has a green card now. As an activist, though, she wonders what will happen to her community.

"Folks forget about our existence," she said. "And the thing about us is we're immigrants and we're also black. We may be picked up by the police in a routine traffic stop, and because of our complexities within our identities we're ... processed through ICE and we're moved silently through the system. I think folks really fail to realize that."

Last week, Abraham traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress about several proposed bills that would provide protections for Liberians and other TPS holders. She said previous legislative efforts have failed partly because they focused on just Liberians.

"It's a little easier for people to see the bigger picture," she said. "When you're talking to Minnesota folks in Congress (about Liberians), they get it. But when you're talking to someone maybe from Idaho, they may not necessarily see the benefit of that because they don't have such a sizable community."

Abraham hopes that the bipartisan support she's seen recently will give her community the peace of mind she's been able to experience.

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