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Liberian-Americans in Minnesota Want Option to Stay


Tuesday, February 10, 2009
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Robbinsdale, Minnesota–Their faces somber they milled into a church in Robbinsdale, a few miles from Brooklyn Park where many Liberians live.
There was tension and fear in their voices as they chat among
themselves.

These approximately three hundred Liberians were gathered on a
chilly Sunday evening to learn how they could petition US legislators,
to extend the temporary immigration status (TPS) for about 1000
Liberians in Minnesota. They hope that they will eventually be granted
US residency. With about two months before the TPS expiration, an
immediate extension is preferred as it would take immigration officials
longer to process the paperwork needed for residency. 

In October 2008, President Bush granted an extension to this same group of Liberians. The extension runs to the first of April. An immigrant under TPS is required to re-register annually with the USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services), and to pay an annual fee for a work permit.

*Sarah Smith was one of these people. She handed out fliers with instructions on calling legislators. “Make sure you call them, “she told one person after the next.

Smith is more than a little distressed. What happens to her family, when on March 31st, her TPS status expires?

“My family will be broken.”

Smith has lived in Minnesota for nine years. For each of those years, she has paid a fee to maintain this temporary status.

When she moved here, her daughter was only a year old and the two of them were granted this temporary immigration status. Her son, through his father, has a green card, so he will not be deported. She could move back to Liberia with him, but with no formal training Smith is at pains to see how she can support herself and her children in a country whose unemployment rate is over eighty per cent.

Liberia is recovering from a civil war that started in 1980, and just ended in 2003. A broken, but recovering infrastructure is ill-equipped to support a sudden influx of deportees from the US.

Kerper Dwanyen, the President of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM) has been working tirelessly to engage his community in finding a permanent immigration solution. Dwanyen warns that, “the emerging democracy of Liberia faces a period of critical rebuilding.”

“Forced repatriation,” he says, “threatens the stability of Liberia and the West Africa region.”

Liberians in the US send thousands of dollars in remittances that are instrumental in the country’s rebuilding.

Dr. Bruce Corrie, a Professor of Economics at Concordia University in Saint Paul argues that the healthcare sector in Minnesota will suffer profoundly should this group of Liberians are deported come March.
“4,000 people who identify as Liberian work in the healthcare sector.”
His research on this community resulted in a finding that shows an enormous financial contribution to the Minnesotan economy. “The Liberian buying power is an estimated $157 million dollars which is almost as large as the 2007-2008 Liberian national budget of $199 million dollars.”

Corrie argues that while Liberians are a minority in the healthcare sector, their employment in the healthcare field has created over 12,000 jobs and should the 300 Liberians on TPS be deported then Minnesota should expect loss in earnings of about 300 million dollars.

A thirty-five year old woman, on condition of anonymity told Mshale, that she has little job security. An accountant by trade, she now works in a nursing home because no one else was willing to hire her on a temporary status. Her living expenses are enormous because her parents, who she lives with, are ailing. While one of them receives state healthcare, the other is on TPS and has to pay for medical expenses out of pocket.

She laments her financial situation, “It’s as if the hole is getting deeper and deeper.”

The Advocates, a Minnesota-based human rights organization with a global lens, and the Jewish Community Action are working closely with the Liberian community to put pressure on legislative change.

Vic Rosenthal, the executive director of JCA spoke at Sunday’s gathering where he urged the Liberian community to create alliances with other immigrant groups who are on TPS. These groups include: Burundi, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.

Michelle Garret-McKenzie, from the Advocates, warned about the ‘new face” of immigration.

“Minnesota has hundreds more immigration officers on the ground than they did two years ago. They are ready to deport you come April 1st.”
McKenzi urged the Liberian community to increase their efforts in getting their voices heard,”Call Congress. Contact the White House!”

Congressman Erik Paulsen amid cheers from the audience promised to work tirelessly in Congress to push for an extension of TPS.

Wynfred Russell, a Liberian community activist and the Director of the Center for Multicultural Studies at Normandale College is “cautiously optimistic that something will be done before March 31st.”

In a telephone interview with the Mshale Russell says, “Since the 18-month extension by President Bush, grassroots organizations have been working with Minnesota legislator keep the issue alive.”
He explained that changing the immigration status for a whole group of people is “a long and complicated political process”. 

In a letter to Congress in December last year, Rep Keith Ellison wrote a letter to then President-elect, now President Barack Obama urging him to extend the Liberian TPS.  In the letter Ellison said that Liberians after fleeing the war in Liberia have established careers, pay taxes, are raising American-born children, and have firmly established themselves in their local US communities. 

                       ————————————–

The Avocates, a human rights organization working with Liberians on TPS, estimates that there are between 4,000 and 10,000 Liberians under temporary protected Status in the United States. 

An estimated 25,000 Liberians live in Minnesota, one of the largest Liberian communities outside of West Africa.

This article was written for both Mshale, and the TC Daily Planet.

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About Julia N. Opoti

A former Mshale editor, Julia Nekessa Opoti is now the producer and host of the radio show: Reflections of New Minnesotans on AM950 . She also edits/publishes Kenya Imagine

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