Bill would grant some Liberians permanent status and path to citizenship

One organizer in Minnesota calls expected passage of the measure ‘a huge moment for this community’

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Flags of the U.S. and Liberia fly at the rally on the steps of the capitol.
Flags of the U.S. and Liberia flew at a rally to call for the extension of a program that gives thousands of Liberians legal status in the United States at the Capitol in St. Paul on March 26, 2018. A bill expected to pass the U.S. Senate next week would give holders of Deferred Enforced Departure a shot at permanent residency and a path to citizenship.
Courtney Perry for MPR News 2018

A new bill expected to pass the U.S. Senate Monday would give some Liberian immigrants in Minnesota and across the country permanent residency and a path to citizenship.

Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) holders would be eligible to apply for permanent status under a provision in the widely supported National Defense Authorization Act.

Lawmakers called it a major victory for the Liberian community, which has established deep roots in Minnesota with an estimated population of 30,000. The population of DED holders nationwide is estimated at 4,000.

Original cosponsors of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act include both DFL senators from Minnesota, Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar.

Smith called it a historic win and said she expects the bill will pass the Senate and be signed by President Trump.

“Immigration issues have been so politicized and it has made it so difficult to come to agreement,” Smith said. “So to have this issue today reach a bipartisan agreement, I think is really a tribute to the strong voices in the Liberian community and so many others who have fought hard to make sure that these members of our community have a chance to become a citizen.”

DED, which began as a Temporary Protected Status program, has given some Liberian immigrants who fled civil war the chance to live and work legally in the United States since the 1990s. It’s always been a temporary program that has been renewed under different administrations.

President Trump had intended to cancel it but decided earlier this year to extend it until March 2020.

Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of the nonprofit African Immigrant Services, has been involved in efforts to find a permanent solution for DED holders. Kiatamba said the community has been contributing to the state’s economy and setting down roots in Minnesota. He said many people would be separated from U.S.-born children if they were to lose their DED status.

Kiatamba added that Liberia’s economy hasn’t recovered enough to take on more people and that America’s history with Liberia should be considered when deciding whether to allow them to stay in the country.

“Liberia was established as a state by free slaves from the United States, and this has not been highlighted,” he said. “The capital Monrovia is named after James Monroe, a U.S. president. All the major institutions are named after Americans. The schools are American curriculum.”

Kiatamba said the provision is the closest thing to reform for DED holders and that it has a strong chance of passing given that it’s included in the National Defense Authorization Act, it doesn’t cost anything, and that the criteria for qualifying are narrow.

According to the bill, DED holders are eligible to apply for permanent residency if they’ve been living in the United States continuously since Nov. 20, 2014, and not been absent for more than a total of 180 days. They would need to apply within one year of the bill becoming law.

Rules that would apply under the Immigration and Nationality Act would also apply under this provision, such as criminal history and crimes of “moral turpitude.”

“The progress in this bill will be the most significant progress in immigration campaign for Liberians that are on DED, ever,” Kiatamba said. “This is a huge moment for this community.”

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