This week, thousands of Liberians protected under Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) will become eligible for deportation, after years of building lives, families, and businesses in the United States. One year after President Donald Trump announced he would end protected immigration status for Liberians, DED is set to expire on March 31, 2019.
DED is a temporary program for Liberians that allows beneficiaries to legally work in the United States and travel out of the country with permission. It is renewed completely at the discretion of the president and provides no path to citizenship.
Liberian immigrants were first given permission to live and work in the United States in 1999, when former President Bill Clinton created the DED program. Since then, many Liberian immigrants have alternatively sought protections under DED or Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which grants temporary protections to people fleeing war, natural disasters, or epidemics. Like DED, TPS doesn’t give people a pathway to citizenship.
According to Trump, the conditions that warranted protections for Liberia before — the ongoing civil war and the 2014 Ebola outbreak later — no longer exist.
“Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflict and has made significant progress in restoring stability and democratic governance,” the presidential memo announcing the end of DED stated. “Liberia has also concluded reconstruction from prior conflicts, which has contributed significantly to an environment that is able to handle adequately the return of its nationals. The 2014 outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease caused a tragic loss of life and economic damage to the country, but Liberia has made tremendous progress in its ability to diagnose and contain future outbreaks of the disease.”
While the exact number of Liberians with DED isn’t known, the U.S. government estimates it to be around 1,000 to 3,600 people. But the expiration of DED won’t just affect these individuals. Many are members of mixed status families with U.S. citizens, and for them, the end of DED amounts to a version of family separation.
For the thousands of Liberians who left their home country in search of a better life in the United States, going back to Liberia is not an option.
“My [Liberian] community is in panic mode as we speak,” Alfreda Daniels, a community organizer with the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, said on a phone call with reporters Wednesday — 11 days from the deadline. “It’s not fair for anyone to live this way. This is not the first time this panic has taken over my community. DED is usually renewed every 18 months. By the end of that 18 months, everyone is scared and worried if that is going to be renewed. People’s families are going to be ripped apart if nothing is done. People deserve to live here, Liberia is no longer their home.”
Because of Trump’s decision to end DED, people like Yatta Kiazolu, a Ph.D candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, will soon become at risk of being deported. Kiazolu, who was born to Liberian parents in Botswana, has lived in the United States for 22 years. She has never lived in Liberia.
“As the March 31, 2019 termination of DED approaches, my life remains in limbo. I have ahead of me opportunities that are unmatched and the termination has already begun to negatively impact my academic and professional development,” Kiazolu told the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing earlier this month on TPS, DED protections, and “Dreamers,” or immigrants who came to the United States as children.
“If DED ends in 25 days, it will certainly interrupt my education by making it difficult to finish the research and writing necessary to graduate in 2019,” she continued. “The termination will stunt my professional development by separating me from my academic and professional network and resources. Additionally, my finances, particularly student loans…will be negatively impacted because I will be unable to continue repayment due to my inability to work.”
15 Liberians sued the administration in early March, urging them to issue an injunction to allow DED to continue, as it did with TPS. With an administration hellbent on ending DED for Liberians, however, the only viable option left to provide a permanent solution for DED holders is legislative action.
The DREAM Act has, for the last 18 years, traditionally provided only Dreamers with a path to citizenship. The latest version — now named the Dream and Promise Act — was introduced just a few weeks ago and would, for the first time, include a path to citizenship for all immigrants the Trump administration has blindsided.
The Dream and Promise Act would provide TPS and DED holders with lawful permanent residence status if they have lived in the United States for three years before the bill is enacted and either had or were eligible for TPS on September 25, 2016 or had DED status as of September 28, 2016.
Dreamers will be granted conditional permanent resident status for 10 years and cancel any removal proceedings so long as they: have been continuously physically present in the United States for four years preceding the date of the enactment of the bill, were 17 years or younger when they first arrived in United States, pass a background check, have a clean criminal record, and graduate from high school or an academic equivalent.
To obtain lawful permanent resident status, Dreamers must graduate from a U.S. college or technical school, complete two years of military service, or be employed for at least three years with 75 percent of that time under an authorized work visa.
All told, the Dream and Promise Act would impact an estimated 2.5 million immigrants. These immigrants and their households contribute $17.4 billion in federal taxes, $9.7 billion in state and local taxes, and hold $75.4 billion in spending power, according to a recent joint report by the University of Southern California and the Center for American Progress.
There is an unprecedented level of urgency with this version of the DREAM Act because of how it immediate Liberians in particular will be impacted by its absence starting on March 31.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) represents a district in Minnesota that’s home to the country’s largest Liberian population. For Omar, fighting for her DED constituents is personal, as an African refugee herself. The Somali-American congresswoman raised awareness about DED at the State of the Union address, when she brought Linda Clark, one of her constituents and a DED holder, as her guest.
Because DED can only be extended by the president, Omar’s hands are unfortunately tied. The Dream and Promise Act is the only course of action for Democrats and immigration activists who want to protect Liberians from deportation.
“DED, TPS, and DACA are promises that we have made to our neighbors and we need to fight for these programs by codifying them into law through the Dream and Promise Act,” Omar said last week. “The Dream and Promise Act would offer stability to over 2.5 million people across the country whose lives were thrown in limbo after the Trump Administration’s cruel decision to end DACA, TPS and DED. I will do everything I can to fight Trump’s mass deportation efforts.”
While the DREAM Act has historically received bipartisan support, it has also been rejected by Republicans who view it as a kind of amnesty bill. In the coming weeks, as Congress returns to session, Omar and other congressional Democrats will rally around Dreamers, TPS, and DED holders by uplifting their stories and underscoring the urgency of this bill.
This story has been updated to include information about a lawsuit against the administration brought by Liberians.