Liberians in Minnesota celebrate pathway to US citizenship

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Denise Butler and Nekessa Opoti
Denise Butler (left) of the African Career, Education and Resource Inc. and Nekessa Opoti of the Black Immigrant Collective dance the evening away at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale

BROOKLYN PARK – Pastor Moses Punni clutched the evening’s program and kept glancing at it a few times, listening intently Saturday night as fellow DED holders spoke during a hurriedly put together celebration by a coalition of groups, that included the Black Immigrant Collective, to celebrate President Trump’s signing of legislation giving Liberians a pathway to citizenship.

All around him, people in the grand ballroom at the Brooklyn Park Community Center, were clapping and cheering as speakers narrated the pain of living under a cloud of uncertainty each year.

Civil war broke out in Liberia in 1991 and President George H.W. Bush granted Liberians already in the U.S.  Temporary Protective Status (TPS) which subsequently became Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED), versions of which prevented Liberians from being deported to unstable Liberia. What this meant is that they could not permanently set roots in the U.S. as DED required the president to annually extend that protection, which every president since then had done. However, in 2018 Trump signaled he was ending DED for Liberians and announced he will end it on March 2019. When March 2019 came, Trump citing “US national security interests” extended it for another year to “wind it down”.

“The fear is over,” Punni said joyfully. “It has been a long time coming.”

Liberian Food
Attendees are served a traditional Liberian meal during a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Moses Punni
Pastor Moses Punni who has been on DED status speaks at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Liberian Community in Minnesota
Members of the Liberian community at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Sizi Goya and Alfreda Daniels
Sizi Goya (right), an elected member of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM) board, dances with Brooklyn Center City Council candidate Alfreda Daniels at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Magdalene Menyongar and Wynfred Russell
The DED Queen Magdalene Menyongar and Brooklyn Park City Council member Wynfred Russell during the Grand March at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
DJ Bangura
Popular Twin Cities DJ, Albert Bangura, provided the music at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
DED Queen
Magdalene Menyongar, referred to as the DED Queen in a joyful dance during a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Liberian Community at DED Celebration
A section of community members that were present at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Minnesota Immigration Lawyers
Some of the lawyers from different organizations that were present at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Minnesota Elelcted Officals
Some of the elected officials that were present at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship included Mayor Jeff Lunde of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota State Senator Jim Hoffman, Minnesota State Representative Mohamud Noor, Brooklyn park Council Member Wynfred Russell and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Advocates for Human Rights
Michele Garnett McKenzie, an immigration lawyer with the Advocates for Human Rights as she highlighted steps Liberians need to take before the December 2020 deadline to get green cards during a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Isabela Wreh-Fofana
Isabela Wreh-Fofana, referred to as the DED Cultural Ambassador provided some comic relief at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Alfreda Daniels
Alfreda Daniels, a union organizer and a declared candidate for the Brooklyn Center City Council acknowledges cheers from the audience as she is introduced at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
US Senator Tina Smith
US Senator Tina Smith listens to a speaker at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale
Dean Phillips
US Congressman Dean Phillips speaks at a celebration on Saturday, January 4 2020 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to mark the signing of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act by President Trump which gives Liberians in the US a pathway to citizenship. Rep. Phillips represents the area where the celebration was held and home to the largest concentration of Liberians outside of Liberia. Photo: Richard Ooga/Mshale

For twelve years, Punni had not seen his parents and extended family, whom he left behind in Liberia in 2000. Painfully, he had to return briefly in 2012 using a travel document issued by USCIS in order to bury his father. He thanked Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison who was present at Saturday’s celebration “for making it possible to go bury my father.” Ellison was at the time a US congressman.

Now, the president has signed legislation that will allow Liberians like him to apply for green cards with a pathway to citizenship. After more than two decades of uncertainty and not seeing families, they can travel and live freely in the United States as long as they do not have other legal criteria that bars them.

The new law Trump signed does not just benefit DED holders but all Liberians nationals, their spouses and unmarried children under 21 that have lived in the United States since November 20, 2014. By the time the community was celebrating on Saturday, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was already accepting green card applications under the new law.

Across Minnesota and the nation, Liberians have been in a celebratory mood since Trump signed the law but on Saturday it became clear just how life-changing this legislation is. Take the case of Magdalene Menyongar, fondly referred to as the “DED Queen.”

Menyongar came to the United States in 1994 as the Liberian civil war intensified and applied for political asylum.

“I have a mother and she is 98-years old, and I have not seen her in 25 years,” Menyongar said on Saturday. “The moment I apply (for green card) I will tell them I have to go (to Liberia).”

Menyogar’s greatest fear has been leaving her high school daughter behind “as separation is very difficult for my daughter who is about to graduate, but to God be the glory.”

Her sentiments were echoed by US Senator Tina Smith who recalled how she was able to convince U.S. Sen. Jack Reed to include the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act into the gargantuan National Defense and Authorization Act to permanently solve the issue. One DED holder recalled a moment when Senator Smith, newly arrived at the US Capitol as a senator, broke down in tears on hearing the struggles those on DED have had to endure.

“Bartee Oh Barteee!” screamed Congressman Dean Philips as he echoed a popular Liberian greeting as he immersed himself in the celebration. Other dignitaries speaking included Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison who urged the Liberian community to exercise their new found political power to benefit others that still face immigration uncertainty. Ellison also urged the community to immerse itself in the political process as that is what ultimately brings about the required change. Brooklyn Park Councilmember Wynfred Russell declared the DED success a communal effort that no one person or organization could take credit for.

This being a celebration, Liberians could also display their legendary humor despite what they have had to endure. As the speaking portion of Saturday’s celebration concluded, the mistress of ceremonies called to the stage Isabela Wreh-Fofana whom she described as the DED Cultural Ambassador. Wreh-Fofana then went on to sprinkle her talk with humorous anecdotes and a grim recollection of life under DED. Staff from the office of Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar read congratulatory messages from their bosses.

“I was driving somewhere and then a police car pulled up behind me, I make a left turn and he make a left turn” she said humorously to hearty laughs from the crowd. “I said maybe they finally come for me, I decided to park and the police just sped away and I said praise the Lord.”

Steps to Green Card

One of the speakers at the celebration was Michele Garnett McKenzie of Advocates for Human Rights who urged all Liberians who qualify to apply immediately and not to wait until December 2020 when the window closes as it is a good law “but does not have forgiveness if you miss the deadline.”.

“Make sure when you file you use someone who knows what they are doing,” said McKenzie.

McKenzie who has worked with Liberians on DED for more than a decade described the new law “as an amazing opportunity.”

For those Liberians that cannot afford an immigration lawyer, McKenzie said “The Immigrant Law Center has priority intake already set up and open for Liberians as only have less than a year and you can call them at 651-641-1011.” She added that there are also resources such as walk-in legal clinics with volunteer lawyers like at Brooklyn United Methodist every first Friday of each month that “do not even need an appointment.”

About Tom Gitaa

Tom is the President and Publisher of Mshale and chair of the Minnesota Multicultural Media Consortium (MMMC). As Mshale founder, he did a lot of the reporting during the humble beginnings of the newspaper. While he still does the occasional reporting, he now concentrates on the publishing side of the news operation.Tom was also the original host of Talking Drum, the signature current affairs show on the African Broadcasting Network (ABN-America), which was available nationwide in the United States via the DishNetwork satellite service. On the show, he interviewed Nobel laureates such as 2004 Nobel Peace prize winner, Professor Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to win the peace prize and heads of states such as the president of  The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh at State House, Banjul. Tom has previously served in the board of directors of Global Minnesota, the sixth largest World Affairs Council in the United States. He has also previously served as President of the Board of Directors of Books for Africa, the largest shipper of donated books to Africa and. He sits on the board of the United Nations Association.

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