New law provides Liberian immigrants pathway to citizenship, but few are applying

Federal officials say the pandemic has also contributed to a processing backlog 

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 U.S. at the Capitol in St. Paul in March 2018. Although many Liberian immigrants are now eligible for green cards under a new law that gives them a pathway to citizenship, just a miniscule fraction of applications have been approved.
Courtney Perry for MPR News 2018

Although many Liberian immigrants are now eligible for green cards under a new law that gives them a pathway to citizenship, just a miniscule fraction of applications have been approved.

A law passed in late 2019 and signed by then-President Donald Trump provides immigrants from the West African country who’ve been in the United States under temporary status the chance to become permanent residents. Federal officials extended the deadline to apply to December of this year.

But in Minnesota, home to one of the nation’s largest Liberian communities, relatively few have taken advantage of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness provision, and federal officials have been slow to process petitions that have been turned in.

Abena Abraham, co-founder of the advocacy group Black Immigrant Collective, said community members did not trust the Trump administration to truly provide a pathway to citizenship.

“It was that fear that we were under such an anti-immigrant administration,” she said. “And were they really going to be granted a green card or was this an opportunity for them to potentially be deported?”

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Liberian immigrants filed 2,310 applications for green cards in 2020. But just 91 have been approved, five were denied and more than 95 percent are still pending. 

A man smiles and dances.
Sizi Goyah danced at a community celebration for the passage of a bill that allows Liberians with temporary status to be in the country permanently in Brooklyn Park, Minn., in January 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

A spokesperson for USCIS said the agency does not have specific data on processing times, but that it has experienced delays in scheduling interviews due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She added that processing times are also affected by demand and capacity at field offices. 

“USCIS is committed to the timely and appropriate adjudication of all petitions,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Each case varies in the amount of time it takes to adjudicate, and each case is adjudicated based on its own merit and in accordance with immigration law.”

Additionally, since they reopened in June of last year, field offices have prioritized naturalization ceremonies and now are beginning to prioritize interviews for naturalization and adjustment of status cases that were postponed. 

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