Liberians face looming deportation deadline as Episcopal leaders join calls for leniency

March 20, 2019

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians are voicing support for thousands of Liberians who face a deadline to leave the United States under a Trump administration policy change. Calls for leniency are particularly strong in Minnesota, which is said to have the largest Liberian immigrant population in the country.

The program is known as Deferred Enforced Departure, or DED, which allows certain groups that lack legal residency status to remain in the United States, typically because conditions in their home countries hinder their return. President Donald Trump chose to end that protection for about 4,000 Liberians, effective March 31, 2019, dismissing concerns about the lingering effects of Liberia’s civil war and an Ebola outbreak there.

“Because of the war, Liberia is not ready to take a large number of returnees,” said the Rev. James Wilson, priest in charge at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Wilson and several members of his congregation are from Liberia. They now are U.S. citizens and aren’t affected directly by the looming end to DED protection, but they and others in the Liberian community of Minnesota have stepped up their advocacy for a change in federal policy because of the trauma that deportations could cause other Liberian families.

“It would bring about family separation,” Wilson said, noting that some Liberians have been establishing roots in the United States for decades and now have children who are U.S. citizens. “Who are they going to stay with? Who’s going to look after them? And this is going to create a kind of community problem.”

Liberia is the only country whose nationals are allowed to remain in the United States under Deferred Enforced Departure, which is authorized at the president’s discretion. This protection is similar to the more common Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, which is an immigration status granted by the Department of Homeland Security to certain people already in the United States who are deemed unable to return to one of a designated list of home countries because of armed conflict, environmental disasters or other dangers.

Ten countries currently are on the TPS list, though the Trump administration has tried to eliminate that protection for hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan, among others. Those TPS terminations are on hold while they are being contested in federal court.

Such policy changes are part of a broader attempt by the Trump administration to curtail both legal and illegal immigration, including by ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Under the Obama administration, DACA protected from deportation about 800,000 individuals, sometimes referred to as Dreamers, who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children. Their status remains in limbo as lawsuits seek to block the Trump administration’s effort to lift protections.

“The Episcopal Church supports the Dream and Promise Act, which would offer long-term protections and a pathway to citizenship for DED recipients, TPS holders, and Dreamers,” Lacy Broemel, a policy adviser for the church’s Office of Government Relations, said in an email. The church’s Episcopal Public Policy Network issued a policy alert this week asking members to contact lawmakers and voice support for that legislation.

“The decision to terminate DED will have lasting impacts on local communities and families,” Broemel said. “DED recipients who are valued members of local communities should have an opportunity to seek permanent status rather than being forced to return to countries they may have left decades prior.”

The Episcopal Church has historical ties with the Episcopal Church of Liberia, which was a diocese of the U.S.-based church until it became part of the Anglican Province of West Africa in 1980. In 2010, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori traveled to Liberia for a weeklong visit. The Episcopal Church continues to support the Episcopal Church of Liberia financially based on a decades-old covenant between the two churches.

Liberia was in the middle of an extended period of civil war when President George H.W. Bush granted Temporary Protected Status to Liberians in 1991, and when that protection was set to expire in 1999, President Bill Clinton was the first to authorize Deferred Enforced Departure. President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama regularly renewed that protection from deportation.

A year ago, the Trump administration announced that conditions had improved enough in Liberia that DED would be phased out.

“Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflict and has made significant progress in restoring stability and democratic governance,” President Donald Trump said in a March 27, 2018, memo authorizing a one-year “wind-down” of the program. “Liberia has also concluded reconstruction from prior conflicts, which has contributed significantly to an environment that is able to handle adequately the return of its nationals.”

Wilson said members of the Liberian community in Minnesota have joined rallies in their state and in Washington, D.C, calling on Trump to reconsider and calling on Congress to pass legislation ensuring long-term protection for this group of Liberians who now face the threat of deportation.

In addition to the Dream and Promise Act, which includes protection for DED recipients, legislation known as the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act would specifically protect Liberians who have been in the United States since 2014.

Members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation have been outspoken in pressing for a solution that acknowledges the roots that Liberians have put down in their state.

“They are our extraordinary neighbors, friends, caregivers and local business owners,” Rep. Dean Reed, a Minnesota Democrat, said last month in a news release. “Minnesota is their home. Uprooting them after decades of living and working in our community would be inhumane and would cause extraordinary disruption to our local economy.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].

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