Washington, DC – When Rose Knuckles Bull came to the United States in 1999, her home country of Liberia was beginning to experience its second civil war.
The first, which lasted from 1989 through 1996, killed some 200,000 people and displaced about half the population. The second war ended in 2003, but both conflicts created a devastating humanitarian situation that was further complicated in 2014 when Ebola broke out.
After coming to the US on a visitor’s visa, Knuckles Bull was given Temporary Protective Status (TPS) under a programme that provides protections to individuals unable to return to their home countries usually due to wars or natural disasters. She was later given Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) protections, which gave Liberians the right to work and live in the US, but no path to citizenship.
In March 2018, US President Donald Trump said he was ending DED, giving an estimated 4,000 Liberians in the US a year – until March 31, 2019 – to either leave the United States on their own and or risk deportation.
On Thursday, as the deadline loomed, and amid increased pressure by politicians, lawyers and the Liberian community, the White House announced it was extending the “wind-down period” for the expiration of DED for another year.
“Upon further reflection and review, I have decided that is is in the foreign policy interest of the United States to extend the wind-down period for an additional 12 months … The overall situation in West Africa remains concerning and Liberia is an important regional partner for the United States,” Trump said in a statement announcing the extension.
“The reintegration of DED beneficiaries into Liberian civil and political life will be a complex task, and an unsuccessful transition could straining United States-Liberia relations and undermine Liberia’s post-civil war strides toward democracy and political stability,” the president added.
Knuckles Bull, who lives in New York, expressed cautious optimism upon hearing about the extension. She told Al Jazeera the rollercoaster of emotions and the financial strain of having to reapply several times for work authorisation has created a repeated stress over the last 20 years.
“[Trump] is just giving us time to be here, he’s not absorbing us into the system,” she said by telephone.
Other individuals and groups that have been organising over the past year to pressure the Trump administration to extend the deadline declared victory, but said a permanent solution needs to be found.
Yatta Kiazolu, a Liberian DED recipient who recently testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that “we are still in the fight for a permanent solution because we still have lives after March 31st, 2020”.
“We know when we fight we win! We are proud of our community and advocates for pushing for this extension.”
Yatta, Liberian DED holder.
— UndocuBlack Network (@UndocuBlack) March 28, 2019
‘We’re still in fight for permanent solution’
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison led a coalition of state attorney generals in filing a brief on Monday supporting DED recipients.
“Liberians are people who have been here since the war, they have grown up here, grown old here, had children here. To rip them apart [from their families] is not only immoral, but also illegal,” Ellison told Al Jazeera.
After the announcement, Ellison tweeted that Trump’s decision is good news, but “only comprehensive immigration reform will fix this for folks long-term”.
I repeat: this is good news for our Liberian brothers and sisters today, but only comprehensive immigration reform will fix this for folks long-term. People’s lives are riding on congressional inaction and that’s wrong. https://t.co/mp9SdQ1DVn
— Keith Ellison (@keithellison) March 28, 2019
Ellison blamed Congress for the looming deportation order by failing to pass comprehensive immigration reforms.
“In reality a lot of these folks in a functioning Congress would be citizens right now or on a path to citizenship,” he told Al Jazeera. “Now we have to fight in the courts.”
Hannah Graf Evans, legislative representative for immigration and refugee policy at Friends Committee on National Legislation, agreed, saying the problem with DED was that it locked Liberians under its protection from getting other visa statuses or citizenship, she said.
“If they have this (DED) they cannot have pathway to other statuses,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Therefore it’s up to Congress to address this through legislation,” she said, adding that her organisation has been advocating to Congress to help those on DED status.
Earlier this month, the House Democrats introduced American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 that if passed, could help those receiving temporary protections in the US, including DED holders, and give them an avenue for permanent legal status.
‘Structured plan to remove folks from US’
Patrice Lawrence, national policy and advocacy coordinator at UndocuBlack Network, which jointly filed the lawsuit to block the deportation, along with African Communities Together (ACT) and 15 DED holders, told Al Jazeera that she sees the Trump administration’s approach to DED and immigration as a whole is part of a “very calculated plan” rooted in racism.
Since coming to office, Trump has cut refugee quotas, banned visitors from several Muslim-majority countries, implemented a “zero-tolerance” policy at the US southern border and ordered an end TPS for individuals from several countries. That order for TPS holders form Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador was blocked in the courts last year.
“I see this as a very structured plan to remove folks from this country in terms of the motive on every level,” she told Al Jazeera.
“It cannot be economic based on the way we show up,” she added. “It cannot be because folks don’t assimilate. We have folks who are members of Congress who are immigrants themselves … so the only thing we can touch on then is that it must be racism and the president’s own words have been a testament to that,” she added.
— Serena F. Crain (@serenafcrain) March 28, 2019
Knuckles Bull said that prior to Thursday’s announcement many in her community were “petrified” at the thought of having to leave or stay in the US undocumented.
For her part, Knuckles Bull hopes to stay in the US long enough to save enough money to go back to Liberia to take care of her 94-year-old mother, who she hasn’t seen in 20 years.
She said she was out of work for many months over the last year due to the amount of time it took her to get her work authorisation papers. She hopes now with the extension, she make enough money to leave the US in the coming months to go back and take care of her mother and other elderly in Liberia.
“I have done what I needed to do here,” she said. “I have contributed to raising my grandchildren who are doing very well. And it’s America that’s going to benefit from them.”