Liberian immigrants may face deportation under this little-known U.S. foreign policy program

The immigration status you never knew existed has been in existence since 1990.

Caroline Grimes, a Deferred Enforced Departure recipient from Liberia, has been in the United States since 2002. If the president does not renew the status, she may be at risk of deportation. (CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee)
Caroline Grimes, a Deferred Enforced Departure recipient from Liberia, has been in the United States since 2002. If the president does not renew the status, she may be at risk of deportation. (CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee)

Caroline Grimes — a Liberian immigrant who fled civil war in 2002 for the United States — is currently working as a nurse in Minnesota. Her job helps support her two daughters and pays for her car and house mortgages. On March 31, Grimes may lose her job, her ability to drive, and her possessions. Worst of all, she — a legal, tax-paying immigrant — may be at risk of deportation.

Grimes is a beneficiary of the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) for Liberia, a little-known immigration program authorized at the president’s discretion to conduct foreign affairs. Similar to other temporary immigration programs, DED recipients can legally work in the country and travel out of the country with advance permission. The program doesn’t provide any kind of automatic pathway to citizenship, however.

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The current DED designation, granted to Liberians living in the United States since October 1, 2002, expires on March 31, 2018. Unlike some immigration programs issued through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that have 60-day pre-deadline announcements, the current president has the ability to renew or terminate the DED program on the very last day.

Like the presidents before him, President Donald Trump has a choice of three options: he can choose to make an affirmative decision by March 31 to extend the program; choose to make a negative decision to end the program; or not provide a reason at all. The third choice automatically triggers the program’s termination.

This kind of stark uncertainty in the days and months leading up to the president’s decision has weighed heavily on Grimes and other DED holders. At a conference in the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday, Grimes spoke about her contributions to her community as a taxpaying nurse and as a mother of two U.S. citizen children.

“We’re short of nurses and the demand is high,” Grimes told ThinkProgress. “People are generally ill —my role is as important and crucial to the beneficial [sic] of the health of America.”

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“With the shortage of nurses, we have to have that transition period where [the hospitals] may be affected too — short staffed,” Grimes continued. She had come to Congress to lobby on her behalf on the grounds that she has been in the country for 16 years and works in a field facing a worker shortage.

Immigrant rights advocates like Amaha Kassa, the director of the advocacy group African Communities Together (ACT), believe it would be “un-humanitarian and destabilizing to return people to Liberia” because they say the country wouldn’t be able to absorb an influx of immigrants. The country has made immense progress, the United Nations recently reported, but it’s still recovering from an economic slump and the Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2015.

There aren’t clear statistics on the number of current DED holders. But according to undated data recently provided by DHS, anywhere between 1,000 and 3,600 people are DED recipients. The data show that about 1,000 DED recipients have valid employment authorization cards, granting them the legal ability to work in the country.

The U.S. government granted a one-year Temporary Protected Status to Grimes soon after she arrived in 2002, allowing her temporary work authorization and deportation relief. At the time, the Department of Justice designated Liberia as a TPS country for one year because the federal government determined that returning Liberians to the “ongoing-armed conflict” would “pose a serious threat to their personal safety.” Before she got to the United States, she said she “had just ran out of the Ivory Coast where there was a civil war.” Prior to that, she left Liberia for the Ivory Coast where she “got caught up in that [civil war].”

Pastor Moses Punni, a Deferred Enforced Departure recipient, holds up a photo of his 15-year-old daughter who he'd leave behind if he was deported if the program expires on March 31, 2018. (credit: Esther Y. Lee)
Pastor Moses Punni, a Deferred Enforced Departure recipient, holds up a photo of his 15-year-old daughter who he'd leave behind if he was deported if the program expires on March 31, 2018. (credit: Esther Y. Lee)

Like Grimes, Pastor Moses Punni has similarly and painstakingly taken on the task of “provider” for his community in Minnesota. As a DED holder, Punni is also at risk of losing his status and becoming undocumented on March 31. Holding up photos of his 15-year-old daughter throughout her growth stages over the years, Punni said his deportation would deprive his daughter of a quality livelihood in the United States. She’s an athlete, a smart kid, and his ministry “co-teacher.” Beyond his daughter, Punni sees the Bible as “the blueprint” for his life, so that has guided him to become foster parent to two Sierra Leonean boys — ages ten and 12.

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Without Punni’s steady guidance, these foster children and his daughter would, in his words, suffer greatly. At the moment, he’s concerned about his second job where his employer would soon need to verify whether he’s legally allowed to work in the country through a Form I-9.

“So as of March 31, if there is no extension or nothing done, then I become an illegal,” Punni said. “As an illegal, the first thing right now — my secular job is asking me to come in to update my I-9 before the 31st of March. Because on April 2, a Monday, I won’t be able to get to work.”

Punni believes he has made a difference as a pastor with a unique direct service that helps him provide a moral upbringing for youth and other people in need of mentors.

“The Bible has been taken out of schools so most of our young kids — we expose them to ethical living that the school cannot give them,” Punni said.

With the countdown clock ticking down, Punni and Grimes are still hopeful that the White House may announce something on the last day to allow them to stay. For a president who privately referred to African and Latin American immigrants as coming from “shithole countries,” fulfilling that request may be nothing short of a miracle. Yet, uncertainty is also something DED holders are uniquely attuned to in a way no other temporary immigration program recipients can quite understand.

An unbroken sequence of legality

DED may sound familiar. It’s a temporary program similar to other immigration programs more recently referenced in the news, like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era executive action that granted work authorization and deportation relief in two-year increments. It is also similar in scope to the Temporary Protected Status, which is often employed when conditions prove too dangerous or hostile in home countries to provide for safe return. DED is unique since it’s not enshrined in statute or regulations. Instead, DED comes from the president’s constitutional ability to conduct foreign affairs.

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“That makes it a very important and broad authority with a lot of flexibility,” Royce Bernstein Murray, the Policy Director at the American Immigration Council, said at the conference Tuesday. “It is not tied to any particular criteria. Unlike TPS which is often based on statute — whether there’s an armed conflict or environmental disaster or other extraordinary and temporary conditions — DED has no such criteria. So whatever the president decides in [their] best foreign policy judgment that it would be best to defer enforcing the departure basically delay the deportation of an individual or group of individuals, the president can do so.”

Four groups of foreign nationals held DED before Liberian immigrants. The federal government first authorized DED status to a specific group of Chinese students dealing with democracy protests in 1990. It was again authorized for mostly Palestinian Persian Gulf evacuees in 1991. Then Salvadoran immigrants had DED between 1992 and 1994. And Haitian immigrants had DED from 1997 to 1999. When the Haitian Refugee and Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA) passed in 1998, those DED immigrants were able to transition into permanent residency status.

Living for a prolonged period of time in a temporary state has almost factually become a procedural reality for Liberian immigrants. Many Liberian immigrants in the United States since 2002 have toggled between an unbroken sequence of DED and TPS extensions to remain legal. Liberians were first given protection under DED in 1999, but on September 29, 2002, the program expired and the then-Immigration and Naturalization Services (still housed within the U.S. Department of Justice) urged recipients to apply for TPS. That TPS program initially lasted between October 1, 2002 and October 1, 2003 but was then extended through 2007. Former President George Bush ended that TPS that and followed it up with DED. The Obama administration continued DED through September 30, 2016. Two days before it was set to expire, then-President Barack Obama extended the DED program through March 31, 2018.

All of these application deadlines have made DED and TPS holders “among the most checked, vetted, secure population of immigrants in this country,” Bernstein Murray pointed out, since they have to pay application fees, submit their personal information, biometrics, and undergo background checks every time they apply for these programs.

Now, less than two weeks out from the program’s expiration, the Trump White House doesn’t yet have any clear insight on how it’s going to proceed. But if past is precedent, it may not be good. Since he took office, Trump has phased out Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, and Syrians. He hasn’t exactly expressed interest in keeping friendly relations with some African countries either. Late last year, the president threatened to cut foreign aid to countries that did not vote with the U.S. stance to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there. Liberia, which receives foreign aid from the United States, voted alongside other African Union countries against the United States.

“People do not know have a sense of what the future holds beyond March 31 because we don’t know if the program will be extended,” Kassa said.

“If it ends for me, there’s no way to absorb that in Liberia,” Grimes pointed out. “I could go back to try and help in the health field but there’s not an availability for that kind of thing.”

“I’m using my eyes of faith to keep persevering, to keep going on,” Punni said. “Living in uncertainty…you don’t know where I will be on April 1. Sometimes you get woken up at night, then you resort to praying. Right now, it’s faith that is sustaining me.”