Dec 14, 2021 - News

Looming deadline sets off scramble to extend program for Liberians

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Lawmakers and immigration advocates are looking for a lifeline for a soon-to-expire program providing a pathway to citizenship for Liberians living in the United States.

Why it matters: Some eligible Liberians who don't apply for the program could be at risk of deportation next summer, when current temporary protections are set to expire.

The big picture: The Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness (LRIF) provision, passed in 2019, was meant to provide permanent residency and protection from deportation to Liberians who fled conflict at home in the 1990s and 2000s.

What's new: Supporters lobbied this month to get an extension included in Congress' big defense spending bill.

  • But lawmakers have moved forward without it, leaving advocates scrambling for other options.

Driving the request: Supporters say cost and challenges collecting required documentation during the pandemic have deterred applications and led to processing delays.

  • As of June 30, about 3,000 of an estimated 10,000 eligible Liberians, including 556 people living in Minnesota, had submitted paperwork.
  • Just 951 applications had been approved, per U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Average turnaround for the most recent batch was roughly a year.

Of note: Updated figures from USCIS were not immediately available, but the numbers have likely increased in recent months given the push to get more people to apply.

  • A spokesperson told Axios that agency officials "share the urgency of advocates and leaders in the Liberian community" and USCIS is "[employing] a robust engagement strategy to reach as many people as possible before the filing deadline," which has already been extended once.

Context: Liberians who sought refuge in the United State during the conflict were granted temporary immigration authorization under executive actions issued by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

  • After former President Donald Trump ended the protections in 2018, LRIF emerged as a fix for thousands of enrollees who could have otherwise faced deportation.

What they're saying: Isabella Wreh-Fofana, a St. Paul nursing assistant who came to the U.S. in 2002, said completing an application took 14 hours of paperwork and a trip to Washington, D.C., to renew an expired passport.

  • She's been working to help fellow Liberians in Minnesota and beyond navigate the process. It hasn't been easy.
  • "Some people think it's something you put information in and you will be deported, so it's difficult," she said of community mistrust of the federal government. "And some people are not working so they don't have the money to do the paperwork."

Between the lines: Lawyers and advocates are worried about what recourse their clients might have if their paperwork turns out to be incomplete.

  • "Many people will get their results whether good or bad after the deadline," said Breanne Palmer, policy and advocacy director of the UndocuBlack Network. "We're really worried about folks who did their best."

What's next: Several members of Minnesota's delegation are looking for a fix in the final weeks of the year.

  • U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who pushed for the original provision in the Senate, told Axios she is "continuing to work to find appropriate legislation so that all eligible Liberian nationals in Minnesota have a path to achieve lawful permanent resident status and a path to citizenship."
  • Rep. Dean Phillips, meanwhile, introduced a stand-alone bill that would grant an extension.

The bottom line: Without an extension, some Liberians living in Minnesota will find themselves back in a stressful state of legal status limbo.

  • "We just want to extend it to give people more chance, so they don't miss the opportunity," Wreh-Fofana said.

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