Imagine being stuck in limbo for decades, never knowing from year to year if the community in which you had put down roots — started a business, raised a family, bought a home — would compel you to leave. That has been the case for thousands of Liberians living in Minnesota (home to the largest Liberian population in the U.S.) and across the country.
Due to life-threatening circumstances like civil wars (1989-1997; 1999-2003) and ebola outbreaks (2014-15), Liberians have been granted various temporary statuses that have allowed them to continue residing and working in the United States. Over the years, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) designations and extensions have served as administrative band-aids while Liberians have waited for security and stability as New Americans.
Now, with the December 2019 passing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (LRIFA), a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, certain Liberians and their eligible family members are able to apply to adjust to lawful permanent resident status (become green card holders). Not only is this an immense relief for those awaiting permanent status, but it also gives Liberians a pathway to U.S. citizenship, which is an enormous cultural and economic benefit to our communities. Also, due to rollback provisions, some may be immediately eligible to naturalize once they receive their green cards.
Many of our Liberian clients at the Institute have been working at the same health care jobs for up to 15 years as nurses and nursing assistants, filling critical gaps in this sector. Already established in Minnesota neighborhoods, many see the LRIFA as a final step to becoming fully integrated in their communities. Some Liberians have been in limbo since 1991 (when the first TPS was announced), having to renew their work permits every 12-18 months and continually contemplate how their lives might radically change if renewals ceased.
Although there are still many uncertainties with this new program, which has required extensive research and preparation from Institute staff, our clients are hopeful and committed. With long waitlists and no confirmation on how long the process will take, we are still hearing from our clients that they want to go through it all with the Institute.
“It’s sort of surreal,” says Senior Immigration Counselor Beverly Skulratana, the majority of whose LRIFA cases are former clients. “I met some kids that were tiny in 2014, when the TPS for Ebola was granted, and now they are teenagers.” She had previously helped these families with DED renewals, pending asylum work permit renewals and TPS applications and renewals.
Kristin Nelson, an Immigration Services Specialist who assists with screening and prepping cases, says clients are very excited but also very patient despite our waitlist. “‘I want to do it with you guys,’ they tell us. ‘I’ve always done it with you, I trust you; I want to do this with the Institute.’”
“I’ve always done it with you, I trust you; I want to do this with the Institute.”
Of course with the coronavirus pandemic, the process has become even more complicated. Unable to meet face-to-face with clients, our staff is relying on virtual tools and no-contact drop-offs of important documents. Especially for elderly clients who have limited digital literacy, this has been a challenge, but their 20-something citizen grandchildren are stepping up to help.
With a deadline of Dec. 20, 2020, there is increased urgency to find creative solutions. As part of the processing, clients are asked to remember details from the 1990s, which can be difficult enough on its own but even more challenging when you have experienced trauma and may have mentally blocked out pertinent information.
Normally, for those without sufficient documents or information, we would make a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to obtain immigration records, but this process can take time and could cause further delay. On a case-by-case basis, the Institute decides with the client what is the safest path forward. Through extensive research on Liberian history — from political parties to civil war timelines — our staff and interns have developed alternative ways to help clients gather these details.
Because Minnesota is home to approximately 35,000 Liberians, local organizations like The Advocates for Human Rights have a significant amount of reference material that can be used to guide processing questions. Someone can be found to be inadmissible, for example, if immigration can show that they ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any other person on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; in such sensitive situations, the Institute would refer clients to an attorney. Like most immigration matters, the process is complex, nuanced and continually evolving.
“I can keep going in life, and I’m going to be OK.”
For now, there is a sense of an “overall exhale,” Skulratana notes. In other positive news, the White House announced on March 30, 2020 that the termination date for Deferred Enforced Departure for Liberia was postponed. “We were concerned about the gap between DED expiration and the receipt of their new work permit based on their pending LRIFA case — these are people in the medical field,” she adds, many serving as essential employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now with the extension, work permits that would have expired March 30 will be valid until January 2021; by that time, we hope clients will be able to access new work permits under pending green card applications.
Combined with the new extension for DED, these developments have “made their whole year, especially right now amid the coronavirus,” Skulratana shares. Receiving the news that they have a pathway has given clients the sense that “I can keep going in life, and I’m going to be OK.”
If you or a family member want help determining if you are eligible for LRIFA, please call the Institute at 651-647-0191, ext. 300.
Learn more about the International Institute of Minnesota’s immigration and citizenship services.