Liberians in Minnesota welcome extension, look for permanent fix

Liberian immigrant Isabella Wreh-Fofana
Liberian immigrant Isabella Wreh-Fofana speaks about the White House's decision to extend the Deferred Enforced Departure program for Liberians at the State Capitol while Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison listens on Thursday.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Isabella Wreh-Fofana said she screamed and started calling people after hearing the news that President Trump extended a deadline that will let her stay in Minnesota another year.

"I'm happy, but there's still fear because it's like every year, it's the same thing," said Wreh-Fofana, a nursing aid at United Hospital in St. Paul, who came to the United States from Liberia with her young son in 2002.

She compared the ongoing concerns about her immigration status to the uncertainty of living in a war zone. She's especially worried when driving.

"When you see a police officer coming, you start to panic. It's emotional stress, and it's hard. I can't put words to everything, but it's very difficult," she said.

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Wreh-Fofana and others met with reporters at the Minnesota Capitol Thursday afternoon after Trump announced he would extend the Deferred Enforced Departure program, or DED, for another year.

The program was set to expire Sunday, and many Liberians were facing the threat of deportation. Trump originally announced the end of the program a year ago with a year to wind the program down. On Thursday, he said the wind-down period would last an additional 12 months, in part because the overall situation in West Africa remains concerning and reintegration will be complex.

Trump also noted the role of Congress, including efforts currently underway to address the issue. He said in his announcement that the extension will preserve the status quo while lawmakers consider remedial legislation.

The new expiration date is March 30, 2020.

Minnesota has one of the largest Liberian communities in the country.

Alexander Collins of the Liberian Ministers Association said he has been worried every year about families he knows being forced to leave the country they now call home. He wants the issue resolved.

"Once and for all, our children can know that they belong here, that their families will not be removed, and their parent will not leave them behind," said Collins.

During the news conference, Gov. Tim Walz described the announcement from the president as good news. He also offered his support to the Liberian community.

"You are welcomed here. You are needed here. And we will stand with you every step of the way on this journey," Walz said.

Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she is concerned about the status of Liberian immigrants because thousands of them live in her legislative district in Brooklyn Park and Coon Rapids.

"We talk a lot about Minnesota values, and this is part of that. In Minnesota, we care about our neighbors and our Liberian neighbors are Minnesotans," she said. "We're going to continue to stand with them."

The extension came the same day of a scheduled court hearing in Massachusetts for a lawsuit filed by Liberians to challenge the earlier decision to end the Deferred Enforced Departure program.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a brief this week with several other states in support of the lawsuit. Ellison believes the lawsuit is the reason for the latest extension.

"The administration looked at the strong case that was against them. And rather than lose the motion for a preliminary injunction, they punted," said Ellison.

Ellison and others praised the federal reprieve, but they also stressed the need for a permanent solution to the immigration status of Liberians.

"The fact is if we had a comprehensive immigration reform that was working and made sense, if Congress would simply act, we would not be in this year-to-year-to-year rollercoaster ride," Ellison said.