Published: June 23, 2018
For years, Congress has discussed the need for comprehensive immigration reform, yet there has been little progress in advancing legislation that would protect the millions of immigrants living in the United States without permanent residence or citizenship. Actions by the Trump administration in 2017 are ending programs that have provided temporary legal status for certain immigrant groups, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for refugees from certain countries, and a lesser known Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) program that specifically protects Liberian refugees.
The DED program allows Liberians to work in the U.S. and travel freely. DED was first created in 1999, and many Liberians have used both DED and TPS to remain in the country legally for almost three decades. The Department of Homeland Security says it is hard to quantify how many people are live with DED status, estimating that around 3,600 people are currently protected by DED. The elimination of DED means many Liberians will be without legal residency documents as of the program end date on March 31, 2019. The program’s end will affect thousands more people and could tear apart families, since many affected people have children who are American citizens.
THOUSANDS OF MINNESOTANS AFFECTED
Minnesota has one of the largest Liberian populations in the country. According to the Embassy of Liberia, an estimated 22,000 Liberians live in Minnesota, with the majority residing in the northwestern Minneapolis suburbs of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center.
African Career, Education and Resource (ACER) is a nonprofit organization serving African immigrants in the area. ACER Community Organizer Wynfred Russell says that the end of the DED program will have a devastating impact on these communities. “The social fabric of the community will be in chaos,” he said.
Although immigration is a federal issue, Russell and his colleagues at ACER are organizing at many levels of government to inform stakeholders about what’s coming and to persuade decision-makers to take action to protect Liberian immigrants. “We fully understand that immigration laws are a federal issue, but there are things we can do locally. We are trying to push for sanctuary, safe harbor, and safe communities for immigrants,” said Russell.
CITY GOVERNMENT AND LOCAL POLICE
Cities with large Liberian populations, like Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, will bear the economic brunt of the end of the DED program. “Many of these immigrants have homes, they rent apartments, they own businesses. All of those things will go away,” Russell says.
Since many of the immigrants who rely on this program have been in the United States for 27 years and have family and social ties in Minnesota, it’s unrealistic to believe they will go back to Liberia. Instead, Russell says, they will likely be forced to quit their jobs, close their businesses, and live in hiding. This will have serious consequences for family stability, as well as the local and state tax bases.
Advocates are encouraging cities to pass sanctuary laws that limit cooperation between local police departments and federal immigration officials. Currently, the cities of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center are not sanctuary cities.
SCHOOL DISTRICTS AND COMMUNITY COLLEGES
Partners are in discussions with school district officials and community colleges to inform them about the potential disruption of family life for Liberian American students next year. They are also asking schools to pass policies to protect any student data that could reveal immigration status information to federal authorities.
Partners successfully advocated for a $250,000 legal defense fund to assist residents’immigration status challenges in Hennepin County. ACER and others are also encouraging the county to enact policies that avoid imprisoning undocumented immigrants in county-run prisons if they do not have a prior criminal record.
LOCAL FAITH-BASED ORGANIZATIONS
Partners are already working with churches and other faith-based organizations to line up services for families that will lose their primary sources of income when DED ends. Faith-based advocacy groups, such as Jewish Community Action, have partnered with ACER to organize phone banks, Know Your Rights workshops, and door-knocking sessions in efforts to mobilize residents to raise their voices about the need to pass legislation protecting Liberian immigrants.
Unions are also allies in this campaign, since many Liberian workers are also union members. Around 36 percent of employed Liberian immigrants work in the healthcare industry. ACER is working with the National Center for Assisted Living to build federal support for policy changes that will protect Liberian immigrants. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has also lent its voice in favor of extending protected status for Liberian immigrants.
LARGE NATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS
ACER is partnering with several large national organizations that have the resources to maintain a daily presence in Washington. Although immigration advocacy is often siloed into specific racial or cultural groups, ACER is partnering with Latino-led organizations to raise the profile of its cause. “Around the country, there aren’t enough resources for Black immigration work and there is no national organization representing Liberians,” Russell says. “So we’re joining forces with Latino organizations and using their platform to push for policy change.”
MINNESOTA’S CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION
ACER and its immigration reform partners have worked with Minnesota’s senators and congresspeople on both sides of the political aisle to pressure the Trump administration to protect Liberian immigrants. Despite its local focus, ACER staff are pulled to Washington frequently for lobby days and meetings on Capitol Hill. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) authored a bill with ACER to protect Liberians, but it has not moved forward in the legislative process to date.
MIDTERM ELECTIONS COULD SPARK CHANGE
DED is scheduled to end after the 2018 midterm elections. Could a potential wave of new faces in Congress revive hope for Liberian immigrants? Russell says it’s possible—but ACER and other immigration advocates are not going to simply hope change comes with new leadership. “We haven’t seen comprehensive immigration reform under the leadership of either major party,” he says. “We can’t be overly optimistic about what will happen in the future. We need to keep up the pressure now.”