‘Cried with joy’: Minnesota's Liberians find elation, relief in new permanent residency law

Two people embrace on a dance floor.
Denise Butler (right) embraced Nelima Sitati Munene Saturday in Brooklyn Park as they celebrated a new federal law giving Liberians in the U.S. a path to citizenship. "It's been a very long, hard road," Munene said.
Evan Frost | MPR News

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and shares stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

By Joey Peters

On the surface, Congress and President Trump’s recent approval of a new law granting most Liberians in the United States a pathway to citizenship may seem like a surprise. Supporters, though, describe it as the product of decades of effort by the Liberian community and its allies.

“This has been a 20-plus-year fight where people have not known their fate,” said Abena Abraham, co-founder of the Black Immigrant Collective. “The passage of this is a relief. It assures Liberians that the U.S. is their home.”

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Since 1991, when President George H.W. Bush granted Liberians in the U.S. temporary status as a civil war broke out in their home country, the laws keeping Liberian immigrants in the U.S. have been precarious at best.

But under the recently passed Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act, all Liberian nationals who have lived in the U.S. continuously since Nov. 20, 2014 are now eligible for lawful permanent residency, or green cards.

Minnesota is home to the largest Liberian population in the U.S., estimated around 30,000 people. Roughly 4,000 Liberians across the country have been staying here under Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED), a federal designation that allows people from certain countries facing upheaval and instability to stay in the U.S. on a temporary basis.

Two people hold hands as others dance under them.
Brooklyn Park City Council member Wynfred Russell, left, dances with Magdalene Menyongar, known as the "DED queen," during a community celebration in Brooklyn Park on Saturday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

DED and Temporary Protective Status (TPS), which thousands of Liberians also used over the years to stay in the U.S., were never conceived as permanent solutions. That meant that people using DED and TPS had to renew their immigration status each year — a lengthy and costly process.

The new law allows a pathway to citizenship for more than just DED holders. All spouses and children under 21 of Liberian nationals who have lived in the U.S. since Nov. 20, 2014 are also eligible for green cards.

Liberians who have taken advantage of other legal statuses like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are also eligible. Even undocumented Liberians who otherwise meet the conditions are eligible.

“This is very comprehensive,” said Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of African Immigrant Services, which focuses on civic engagement in the local immigrant community. “This is the biggest win we’ve ever achieved collectively. This addresses a long-term anxiety, uncertainty and unpredictability in the lives of Liberian-Americans.”

The development is a big turnaround from just one year ago, when scores of Liberians in the U.S. and Minnesota feared deportation.

That stemmed from President Trump’s announcement in early 2018 that he was ending the DED program, setting an expiration date for March 2019. But when that date approached, Trump renewed DED for another year, bumping the expiration date to March of this year.

Trump also signaled he would sign a long-term solution to the issue if Congress came up with one.

A man smiles and dances.
Sizi Goyah dances at a community celebration for the passage of a bill that allows Liberians with temporary status to be in the country permanently.
Evan Frost | MPR News

That solution came just one month ago, when U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., managed to insert the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act into a massive defense spending bill that easily passed Congress. Trump signed the bill days later.

For more than two decades, Reed authored the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act every year, often with the help of co-sponsors from Minnesota’s congressional delegation. Each attempt was unsuccessful, but Reed was able to place the measure into the defense bill as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Two exemptions will prevent some Liberian nationals from gaining residency: those convicted of aggravated felonies and those found to have engaged in persecution in their home country.

Congress has been expanding the scope of what crimes fall under aggravated felonies since adding them to immigration enforcement in 1988. Initially, aggravated felonies included murder and drug and firearm trafficking offenses, but today they also include statutory rape and failing to appear in court on a felony charge with prison time of two years.

Still, the new law is expected to affect thousands of Liberians in Minnesota and across the nation.

Two men are served food by two women.
State Sen. John Hoffman, far left, and Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeffrey Lunde are dished a meal of traditional Liberian food by Nekessa Opoti, far right, and Linda Clark during a celebration for Liberian people holding Deferred Enforced Departure status, who now have a pathway to permanent residency, in Brooklyn Park on Saturday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Isabella Wren-Fofana came to the U.S. in 2002 on a health visa for medical treatment for her son, Nyensuahtee, who was born with three holes in his heart and required multiple open-heart surgeries at a young age.

Since then, both have been able to stay in the country under DED and TPS.

Wren-Fofana, who is in her 50s, lives in St. Paul and works as a nursing assistant at United Hospital, recalled the difficulty of renewing her immigration status each year. It also required frequent trips to the DMV to renew her driver’s license.

Often, her work required her to stay home whenever her immigration status was in limbo. Once Wren-Fofana’s DED or TPS renewed, her job would put her back on the schedule.

“Sometimes it took two or three months, and you’ve got to keep paying rent and health insurance,” Wren-Fofana said. “It was very difficult and stressful, all the time you’re just sitting there.”

Wren-Fofana and her son have been writing to Congress and pushing for long-term solutions for years.

A room of people clap and cheer.
Liberian community members celebrate the passage of a bill that gives Liberians with Deferred Enforced Departure status a path to becoming permanent residents of the U.S.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“I just felt relieved that all that effort we’ve been putting in eventually came through,” said Nyensuahtee, now 24. “It actually working makes my faith in government restored, a little bit.”

He recalled how renewal of DED and TPS would cost the family a total of $1,200 each year just to reapply. “That was a giant financial burden.”

Applying for a green card also isn’t cheap. Each application costs around $1,000. Isabella is preparing to gather the roughly $3,000 required to cover everyone in the family. She added that she’ll have to spend additional costs for requirements like fingerprinting.

“I’m trying to do it this month, by the grace of God,” she said.

Every Liberian in the U.S. now eligible for a green card also has a limited amount of time to seek it. The window of time expires Dec. 20 of this year — one year to the day Trump signed the measure into law.

“It’s going to have to be a very fast turnaround time,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director for the Twin Cities-based group Advocates for Human Rights.

To help people meet the costs and the deadline, her organization will hold information sessions and community clinics throughout the year.

African Immigrant Services has 10 lawyers to work with local Liberians on applications, and is looking for more. The Immigration Law Center of Minnesota is making Liberians applying for green cards priority cases.

Three people stand on a stage together.
Sen. Tina Smith looks back as Rep. Dean Phillips dances on stage with Magdalene Menyongar, known as the "DED queen," during a Liberian community celebration in Brooklyn Park on Saturday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Those who do successfully obtain green cards will be able to travel outside the U.S. for the first time in years. It’s something that Victoria Tweh and Linda Clark are planning once they get their green cards. Both are in the U.S. under DED and have sons in Liberia that they haven’t seen since coming to Minnesota several years ago.

Tweh, an artist and a beautician, came to the U.S. on a cultural trip in 1997 with a group of Liberians. The plan was to stay for five months, but her home country grew more chaotic and she felt she couldn’t go back. Her son, now in his late 20s, stayed in Liberia.

When Tweh’s own mother died in 2017, she also couldn’t go back to bury her.

“It’s a very tough thing,” she said. “Nobody wants to get away from their family like that.”

Still, Tweh and her son talk every day either on the phone or through video chat. Both look forward to visiting each other soon, she said.

“He was crying when he got the news,” Tweh said. “It brought joy to both him and me.”

Clark came to Minnesota in 2000 to leave a bad situation in Liberia and pave a way for a new life for her family. But getting her family over to the U.S. proved more complicated than she initially thought, and they’ve been separated ever since. Clark hasn’t seen her son, now 21, since he was 2 years old, though they talk on the phone all the time.

Both reacted emotionally when they found out about the new law passing.

“I cried with joy, knowing that I’m going to see him after these many years,” Clark said.

On Saturday, Liberians and their advocates gathered in Brooklyn Park, home to 7,000 Liberians, to celebrate the passage of the new law. Minnesota U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips and Attorney General Keith Ellison offered words of support.

Sizing up the celebration, Phillips called it “the most beautiful room in America.” Ellison declared that Minnesota’s health care industry would not survive without its large Liberian-American workforce.

Several community members, many of them here under DED, also took to the stage to share their personal stories, sometimes shouting in jubilation.

“Liberian people are the strongest, most determined people in this country,” said Gabrielle Gworlekaju, who was born in the U.S. but whose mother is here under DED, drawing a sharp applause from the crowd.

“I had to bury my father when I was 8 years old,” she said. “So if the devil thought I was going to see my mother get deported when I was 16, he’s a liar.”

MPR News reporter Tarkor Zehn contributed the audio that accompanies this story.

Correction (Jan. 5, 2020): An earlier version of this story misidentified the two people in the top photo; Abena Abraham’s title with the Black Immigrant Collective was also incorrect.