Home Governance Deportation Fear Hits Liberians …As U.S Citizenship Program Expires

Deportation Fear Hits Liberians …As U.S Citizenship Program Expires

by News Manager

DELAWARE, USA: Yatta Kiazolu could barely process the news when she learned she could become an American citizen.

Folded obscurely into the defense authorization budget in December 2019 was a historic provision called “Liberian Refugee Immigrant Fairness.”
Deadlines were short, with heavy paperwork requirements. But the law offered a rare path to citizenship for Liberian refugees who’d been living in uncertainty for decades, after fleeing a pair of brutal and seemingly endless civil wars.
“When it passed the Senate, I still didn’t believe it even when they signed it. I just didn’t believe it. I was still in a state of preparing for the worst,” Kiazolu said. “When you’ve been living in limbo for that long, you’re always preparing to fight.”

From age 6, Kiazolu had grown up a lot like any other kid in Delaware. She’d played Little League with her cousins, went to Smyrna High, and earned a degree from Delaware State. Yet her passport stubbornly said “Liberia” — the country her parents had escaped before she was even born.

Delaware State graduate fighting impending end of immigrant protections
Now, any Liberian who’d lived in the United States continuously since 2014 was eligible to apply for permanent residency — and from there, citizenship.
But for the majority of an estimated 10,000 eligible Liberian refugees, it hasn’t played out that way.
Instead, the LRIF program was launched into the jaws of a worldwide pandemic.

Amid an uneven rollout, consulate closures and broad mistrust among eligible Liberians, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services accepted just 3,969 applications by last year’s December 20 deadline.
Even among those who managed to navigate the byzantine realities of documenting birth and Liberian citizenship during a pandemic — not to mention pay the $1,225 application fee — towering backlogs mean some applicants have waited as long as two years.

In a statement, USCIS said it’s been streamlining procedures to get through the applications more quickly. Just 1,595 applications were approved at the end of last year.
When legal protections expire in June, thousands of Liberians fear losing their work authorization, or even deportation.
“We are talking about thousands of people who’ve been in the United States for decades. And many of them are in the health care field,” said Diana Konate, policy director at DC-based nonprofit African Communities Together.
Alongside Minnesota, some of the country’s densest Liberian strongholds are located in the Mid-Atlantic, at the intersections of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York.
“I do feel like America is a great country,” said Konate, whose mother emigrated from Liberia. “And I want other immigrants to have all the opportunities that I’ve had.
LRIF a difficult path to citizenship
For Liberian refugees, LRIF has been both a singular opportunity and a high-stakes reckoning.
Liberia has historic ties to the United States, after many freed American slaves settled there beginning in the 1700s. Liberians were granted protected immigrant status in 1991, during a protracted civil war that killed 200,000 and displaced far more.
For the next three decades, each successive American president kept delaying — but never removing — the date of Kiazolu and other Liberian refugees’ deportation, to some unknown day when conditions in Liberia were better.
Though Liberia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with a formal employment rate of just 15%, the Trump administration announced in 2018 that no more renewals were forthcoming. After decades living and working in America, Liberians were asked to leave.

Instead, Kiazolu decided to fight. She joined with nonprofit African Communities Together in an ultimately unsuccessful discrimination lawsuit, and spoke before Congress, calling her potential deportation “without a doubt the most terrifying thing I have ever been through.”
“Our communities are in a state of panic,” she testified in March 2019. “Our communities are in a state of crisis… It means financial gaps. It means abandoning children and homes.”
Congress passed LRIF in the nick of time, just as protections expired. Kiazolu, now a doctoral candidate in California, was among those to benefit. She gained her citizenship last year — and for the first time, she was able to visit her parents’ homeland without being afraid she couldn’t return to the United States.
Others are still waiting.
Like many Liberians whose immigration status is uncertain, Millicent fears speaking out, and asked not to be identified by her full name.She arrived in 2014, settling in Pennsylvania’s Delaware County. She had a daughter here, and enrolled in a data analysis program. In January 2020, she was among the first to apply through LRIF, and was scheduled for an interview that summer.
But a year and a half later, she’s heard nothing.
“I sent email after email,” she said. “They told me it’s on an agent’s desk.”
She now lives outside Houston, and her unstable work status means full-time work is unattainable. She drives Uber to make ends meet.
“When they know that your work permit is about to expire, they don’t want to give you an opportunity,” she said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Pandemic delays and immigration backlogs
Millicent’s experience is far from unusual, advocates said.
“We’re very happy about the program,” Konate said. “The problem has been implementation.”
The rollout of LRIF was marred by confusion and lack of guidance, she said. Tight application deadlines meant the State Department had to move quickly. Many applicants did the same.

“For the first couple of months, a lot of Liberians were applying blind,” she said. “What we saw was that a lot of those people, particularly Liberians who applied without attorneys, eventually got their applications denied.”
The pandemic compounded these difficulties with the closures of some Liberian offices in the United States. To renew a passport, Liberians in Minnesota needed to take time off work, and drive to Washington or New York during months when travel was strongly discouraged.
Supply-chain issues caused problems inconceivable in non-pandemic years, said Pamela Johnson, an attorney with Philadelphia-based refugee nonprofit Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“A young man was denied in September, and we were trying to get a corrected birth certificate for him,” she said. “Liberia reported back that they didn’t have the paper available to make birth certificates.”
Meanwhile, applications seemed to be processed differently at different immigration offices, said Voffee Jabateh, CEO of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, which handled hundreds of LRIF applications from its Southwest Philadelphia office.

Some applicants might get their green card immediately after an interview, or within months, he said. Some waited well over a year.
“To interview you go to different offices,” he said. “And Officer A does not understand as much of what needs to be done as Officer B.”
On a desk in Jabateh’s office was a thick stack of papers: an application that had been rejected from Florida as being received too late. Two days later, they’d mailed an application to Texas that was accepted.
The net result of those difficulties has been mistrust, said Konate — especially after some early LRIF applications didn’t go through.
Many Liberians who’ve been in America for decades, including Konate’s own mother, had to grow used to uncertainty. Each 18 months or so they faced a new expiration date and a new set of forms to fill out, never knowing whether each new president would extend their protected status.
“There’s just still this fear,” Konate said. “Even with the new administration, there’s this fear that people could provide their information to the government, and that information could be used against them. And they could be deported.”
Refugee attorney Johnson said many applicants were waiting to see other people succeed before spending the daunting fee. But approvals didn’t arrive in large numbers until late in the process.
In a statement, U.S. Customs and Immigration said its officers have engaged eligible Liberians both door-to-door and through community organizations and churches.
“USCIS continued its robust outreach plan ahead of the application deadline and worked tirelessly to overcome any fear and mistrust among communities and break down barriers that may keep individuals from accessing immigration benefits — and LRIF is no exception,” read the statement.
Advocates say the process has gotten smoother, and that the immigration office has recently been responsive in adjusting documentation requirements.
What they need, Konate said, is more time.
Legislative relief for Liberians stalled
So far, some lawmakers seem receptive to extensions. But efforts remain on the backburner.
President Biden had already extended the program’s deadlines by executive order in January 2021. As the new deadline loomed last December, Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., proposed a standalone bill called the Liberian Refugee Fairness Extension Act to offer an additional one-year reprieve.
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D.-Pa., whose Delaware County district is home to one of the largest Liberian populations in the country, said she’d joined an effort to push a deadline extension into last year’s defense authorization bill.
“It has been extremely disappointing that no solution was achieved before the deadline passed. … Congress has an obligation to support Liberian refugees who have called our country home for years, and I hope the Liberian Refugee Fairness Extension Act can be our vehicle to do that,” wrote Scanlon in response to inquires.
But as Congress focused on infrastructure legislation and war in Ukraine, that bill remains in committee.
Konate says she remains hopeful. Each rescue, she said, has come at the last moment.

“Unfortunately, sometimes Congress doesn’t just do things because it’s the right thing to do. They kind of need a deadline,” she said, noting that the biggest obstacle was getting any law passed in the first place.
“Now, hopefully, we can get it reopened,” she said.
For many Liberians, the suspense is hard to bear.
Linda Clarke, a Liberian in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, was able to finally get her green card after a lapsed work authorization left her suspended from the bank where she’d worked for 17 years. But other friends aren’t as fortunate.
“I was so thankful, and I bless God,” she said. “But I have friends on this program who have gone for an interview, and it’s been almost two years. And they have not heard anything from immigration… I called my friend and she is so frustrated, she is sick. She is distressed. It’s just too much.”
Millicent, the Uber driver still awaiting word on her LRIF application, said she can’t even consider the chance she’d be sent back to Liberia. She has a 7-year-old daughter to support, born here as an American citizen.
“I hope not,’ she said. “I pray not. I hope it does not come to that.”

Matthew Korfhage is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. Email: mkorfhage@gannettnj.com | Twitter: @matthewkorfhage

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