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Living in limbo may end for Liberians in the US

Living in limbo may end for Liberians in the US

There is a bright light in America’s very dark sky. Despite a highly partisan Congress struggling to enact legislation and a president erupting in xenophobic tweets, a positive immigration provision became manifest during the holiday season. Nestled in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020 that President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE signed Dec. 20, 2019, is the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (section 7611). For the first time in over 20 years, foreign nationals from a country who had been given blanket relief from removal for humanitarian reasons now have the statutory authority to become lawful permanent residents (LPRs).  

The last time Congress passed such a provision that the president signed was the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act of 1998. That law enabled Haitians who filed asylum claims, or who were paroled into the United States before Dec. 31, 1995, to adjust to legal permanent residence. The 1991 military coup d’etat deposing Haiti’s democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide prompted thousands of Haitians to seek asylum in the United States. The year before, Congress enacted the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997 that enabled thousands of Nicaraguans and Cubans to become legal permanent residents. There were at least 16 provisions enacted since 1952 that similarly provided LPR status to nationals of various nations, including Chinese, Czechs, Ethiopians, Hungarians, Poles and Ugandans.

Liberia is a small coastal African nation that is especially significant to the United States because the American Colonization Society began an effort in 1822 to resettle free African Americans and former U.S. slaves there. In 1847, the Americo-Liberian settlers established the modern nation of Liberia and generally maintained political control until a civil war erupted in the 1980s. The conflict resulted in numerous human rights violations and mass atrocities. The United Nations estimated that 150,00 to 200,000 Liberians died and 1.6 million were displaced from 1989 to 1996. Those Liberians who happened to be in the United States on temporary visas were fortunate at the time.

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Liberians in the United States have had relief from removal for the longest period (since 1991) of those who have had Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or other forms of blanket relief from deportation. TPS is humanitarian relief that provides safe haven for foreign nationals within the United States who may not meet the legal definition of refugee or asylee but are reluctant to return to dangerous situations. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson Clinton'Black Panther' star criticized for sharing video questioning COVID-19 vaccine Black voters: Low propensity, or low priority? Biden says he will join former presidents and publicly get coronavirus vaccine MORE renewed it through the 1990s. Although that internal war ended, a second civil war began in 1999 and escalated in 2000. In 1999, approximately 10,000 Liberians in the United States were given Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) after their TPS expired. 

Because the law includes a provision that requires legislation providing LPR status to persons with TPS to have a three-fifths vote in the Senate, the change to DED was advantageous. Supporters of Liberians in the United States began introducing legislation that would enable them to become LPRs, most notably the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act of 1998 sponsored by then-Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedLawmakers release compromise defense bill without Section 230 repeal Top Democrat calls Trump's Afghan drawdown 'the right policy decision' as others warn of 'mistake' Overnight Defense: Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper | Worries grow about rudderless post-election Pentagon | Esper firing hints at broader post-election shake-up | Pelosi says Esper firing shows Trump intent on sowing 'chaos' MORE (D-R.I.). As the push for comprehensive immigration reform gained steam in the 2000s, however, the fate of the Liberians became entwined with broader legalization efforts.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSmearing presidential election will turn off young voters and undermine democracy 'Black Panther' star criticized for sharing video questioning COVID-19 vaccine Black voters: Low propensity, or low priority? MORE continued to provide Liberians residing in the United States with humanitarian relief from removal as country conditions remained precarious. Ultimately, the international court found Liberia’s president from 1997 to 2003 — Charles Taylor — guilty in April 2012 of war crimes, including terror, murder and rape. Though it seemed the country might turn the corner, the Ebola virus spread through Liberia in 2014, challenging a health care system weakened by years of civil war. A reported 4,805 Liberians died from Ebola before the country was declared Ebola-free in June 2016. 

In March 2018, President Trump announced that conditions in Liberia no longer warranted DED. The Trump administration provided one-year wind-down extension of DED for Liberians in the United States. A lawsuit challenging the termination was filed in federal court on March 8, 2019, and President Trump subsequently announced an extension of DED through March 30, 2020. Although Liberians lost their court case, Sens. Reed and Tina SmithTina Flint SmithSenate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls Smith wins reelection in Minnesota Democrats expand Senate map, putting GOP on defense MORE (D-Minn.) ensured that the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act — introduced by Reed and Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Capital One - Tensions rise with Trump, Barr Maloney to lead Democrats' campaign arm Hillicon Valley: GOP chairman says defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal | Senate panel advances FCC nominee | Krebs says threats to election officials 'undermining democracy' MORE (D-R.I.) — was included in must-pass legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act. 

Today an estimated 4,000 Liberian nationals, some of whom have been living in the United States in immigration limbo for almost three decades, are now eligible to become LPRs. To qualify, they must demonstrate that they are nationals of Liberia who have been continuously physically present in the United States since Nov. 20, 2014. They also must be otherwise eligible for an immigrant visa and admissible to the United States, or eligible for a waiver of inadmissibility. 

These Liberians represent a very small portion of the millions of foreign nationals living in the United States in an uncertain or unauthorized status. Yet, a small bright light now shines to illuminate the way in 2020. 

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a professor of policy practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration. Follow her on Twitter @rewasem.