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Liberians in NY ‘Jubilant’ at Expulsion Reprieve

2009-04-01 18:20:16

Liberian immigrants in New York celebrated the news on Saturday that President Obama had granted a temporary reprieve to some who were facing the possibility of expulsion at the end of the month.

Mr. Obama signed an order on Friday extending by 12 months a policy that grants Liberians the temporary right to live and work in the United States, an administration official said.

The policy was to expire on March 31, presenting the Liberians with a stark choice: Uproot themselves and return to Liberia, which remains politically and economically unstable, or stay in the United States illegally and risk deportation.

“People are jubilant, people are happy,” said Jacob D. Massaquoi II, executive director of African Refuge, a community organization on Staten Island that helps Liberian refugees.

Special residency and employment rights for Liberians were first granted in 1991 as civil war tore apart their country. Thousands fled their homeland and moved to the United States. A particularly large number settled on Staten Island, where many went to schools and colleges, married, had children, started businesses and bought property.

The program was extended or renewed several times. But after the end of the civil war in 2003, and elections in 2005, the United States government decided it was time to lift the special allowance, known as Temporary Protected Status. In 2007, President George W. Bush granted an 18-month extension, which federal officials said would be the last one.

But in recent months, civic leaders in the Liberian-American community asked Mr. Obama, who has sole authority in the matter, to extend the program once more. They argued that the alternative could divide families and rupture communities.

“It would have a huge impact,” said Jennifer Gray-Brumskine, vice chairwoman of the Staten Island Liberian Community Association. “Separating families would create a new post-traumatic syndrome.”

The consequences, the advocates said, would also be acutely felt in Liberia. The unemployment rate there is about 85 percent, and many people there depend on money sent by Liberians in the United States to survive.

Now that the community has been granted another reprieve, its leaders say they will press Congress to provide Liberian exiles with an expedited path to citizenship.

But their campaign will most likely run up against strong opposition, particularly from groups seeking tighter restrictions on immigration.

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a public policy group that seeks to reduce immigration, said that Temporary Protected Status was intended to provide relief to populations during acute emergencies.

In an e-mail message, he said that any “heart-tugging personal stories of separation” were “the unavoidable trade-off for having accepted America’s hospitality for so long.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 3,500 Liberians were registered under the program in 2007.

Liberian community leaders say that the refugee population is far larger — in the tens of thousands, by some estimates — but that most either never registered or failed to maintain their registration, and are therefore in the country illegally.

An Obama administration official said on Saturday that Liberian exiles who were not registered in 2007 would not be eligible to register under the new extension.

Some Liberians, mindful of the impending deadline, filed applications in recent months for a change of immigration status that would allow them to remain in the country legally on various grounds when the current policy expires.

But in interviews on Staten Island this month, it was apparent that many, if not most, Liberian exiles there had decided to stay regardless of whether Mr. Obama postponed the deadline, resigning themselves to staying under the radar of immigration officials.

Among them is Madeline, a home health aide who has been living in the United States since the early 1990s and spoke on the condition that neither her surname nor her age be published for fear of alerting the immigration authorities.

She said that she had no intention of moving back to Liberia, and that her family there supported her decision.

“I’m going to run away and hide somewhere,” she said. “Even my relatives are saying, ‘We’re going to pray for you.’ They’re depending on me.”

- NY Times

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