Dec 20, 2021 - News

Pennsylvania advocates push to extend program for Liberians

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Immigration advocates have been scrambling to get eligible Liberians living in the U.S. to submit applications for a soon-to-expire program providing a pathway to citizenship.

Why it matters: Some eligible Liberians could be at risk of deportation next summer, when the temporary protections from removal are set to expire.

The big picture: Monday is the deadline to apply for lawful permanent resident status under the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness provision, which passed in 2019.

  • It was designed to provide permanent residency and protection from deportation to Liberians who fled conflict in the 1990s and 2000s.

Context: Liberians who sought refuge in the U.S. during the conflict were granted temporary immigration authorization under executive orders issued by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Axios' Torey Van Oot reports.

State of play: Advocates say the pandemic, slow processing times, costs and challenges gathering paperwork have been constant hurdles in the application process.

  • As of September 2021, 3,660 Liberians had submitted paperwork. Of that, only 1,316 have been approved, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Zoom in: Pennsylvania accounted for the most applications of any state, with 660 submissions, according to the latest quarterly report.

What they're saying: Voffee Jabateh, CEO of the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA), said case workers rushed to send out applications Saturday and Sunday at his office in West Philly.

  • The nonprofit has helped 200 people apply since 2019, but Jabateh told Axios most are still pending.
  • "We're doing the best we can," he said.

A spokesperson for USCIS told Axios it has continued to expand engagement efforts ahead of the deadline.

  • "We share the urgency of advocates and leaders in the Liberian community," the person said.

Between the lines: Advocates are hoping for an extension or getting rid of a deadline altogether.

  • Without the program, it will mean "living in additional fear, potentially losing work authorization, and many things that will disrupt and harm people’s everyday lives," Breanne Palmer, the policy and advocacy director of the UndocuBlack Network, told Axios.

Pamela Roberts, a lawyer with HIAS Pennsylvania, noted that the LRIF has been looked at as a potential model for other programs designed for the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

  • "This is the first program in two decades that actually offers what we refer to as permanent relief, but they have an [accelerated] path to citizenship," Roberts said.

What's next: USCIS will continue to process applications after today but won't accept new ones. Meanwhile, advocates and lawmakers are holding out for Congress to reopen.

  • Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) introduced a stand-alone bill earlier this month that would grant an extension until next year.
  • Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) told Axios she supports Phillips' bill and will vote in favor of it.

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