NEW YORK — As intensifying violence in Ivory Coast threatens to spill into neighboring Liberia, many Liberian immigrants here are fearful that they may be forced to go back to their crisis-ridden country when their temporary protected status (TPS) in the United States expires this September.
Ellen Margrethe Løj, special representative for the United Nations Secretary General in Liberia, told reporters here Wednesday, that since the post-election unrest erupted in the neighboring Cote d’lvoire, tens of thousands of Ivorian refugees have been flooding across the border into Liberia.
This increased influx of refugees makes it easier for mercenaries from Ivory Coast to smuggle weapons into Liberia, which is still recovering from a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. The Liberian presidential election in October compounds the delicate situation.
“I’m very worried,” Løj added. “There are rumors now that new [mercenary] recruiting is also taking place. We have to be very careful in monitoring potential consequences.”
“The U.S. government has been quite strict about accepting refugees,” Løj said in an exclusive interview after the press briefing. “I don’t know what will happen to Liberians who are already here.”
Since last December, more than 50,000 Ivorian refugees have streamed across the Liberian border, straining the water and food supply in host Liberian villages. With prolonged political unrest in Ivory Coast, the number of refugees crossing into Liberia is expected to increase in the coming weeks.
In Minneapolis, news of potential violence spilling over into Liberia has been chilling for Liberian immigrants whose extended TPS are about to expire.
According to Mshale, an English-language Kenyan weekly, some 10,000 Liberian immigrants are under temporary protected status in the United States. An estimated 25,000 Liberians live in Minnesota.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security grants TPS to foreign nationals who are already in the U.S. but may not able to return to their country due to an on-going armed conflict, environmental disaster, or in certain circumstances, if the country is unable to adequately handle the return of its nationals.
In 2007, four years after the civil war in Liberia, Pres. George W. Bush gave certain Liberians an extension of their TPS for 18 months. Then, in March 2009, Pres. Barack Obama gave them an additional 12 months.
Several advocacy groups and supporters appealed, asking the Obama administration to give full refugee rights to the Liberians so that they could stay, but no legislation has been passed. In March 2010, however, Obama gave Liberians an additional 18 months, which will expire on Sept. 30, 2011.
“I can’t sleep anymore. I feel like I’m going to get crazy. This pressure is too much to bear,” says E. Brown, a Liberian woman in her early 50s, who requests that her full name not be disclosed.
With the current unstable political and economic situation in Liberia, Brown says it would be devastating for her and thousands of Liberian immigrant families with TPS if they are forced to return to their home country.
“We’ve already built our lives here,” Brown explains. “Some of our children were born and grew up in the United States. I can’t imagine myself to be separated from them.”
A 42-year-old Liberian cab driver in Chicago, who requested anonymity, says that he and others with temporary protected status “are treated like robots that have no feelings and freedom.”
“I’m very grateful to be here, to be alive,” he says, “but the [U.S.] government can just say, ‘Time is up. Pack your things and leave.’ That makes me very scared.”
Most Liberian immigrants with TPS have already bought a house, a car, and other properties, the cab driver says, and some have already established their own businesses.
“If you were in our position, would you want to go back? Would you want to experience violence again in your life?” he asks.
Julia Nekessa Opoti, publisher of Kenyaimagine.com and a reporter for Twin Cities Daily Planet who covers Liberian issues, says that many Liberian immigrants have deliberately failed to renew their temporary protected status and now are undocumented.
“They think that if they renew their TPS, they will be in the system, which will be easy to track where they are,” Opoti explains. “Others didn’t renew their employment authorization document (EAD) because they could not simply afford the application fees.”
While the Liberian community is robust and vital to the local economy, especially in Minnesota, Opoti says that Liberian leaders are not aggressive enough to mobilize themselves and push for legislation that will solve the problem.
“Liberian community leaders will only act when the extension of TPS is about to expire,” Opoti says. “But even if the TPS gets another extension, it remains temporary.”
A 2008 Concordia University study, “Ethnic Capital and Minnesota’s Future: People of Liberian Origin in Minnesota,” found that nationally, Liberians pay an estimated $441 million in personal taxes, almost equal to the GDP of Liberia.
In Minnesota alone, the study found, Liberian immigrant workers, who are concentrated in the health care sector, raised the state’s earnings by $492 million. And, if more than 3,000 Liberian workers were to leave the local economy, this would result in more than $300 million in lost state revenue.
“It’s clear that Liberia is still struggling from the war—and it’s not helpful for Liberians with TPS to return,” Douglas Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture. “We feel that the Liberian government is not politically and economically capable yet to take these Liberians back. It will create more instability.”
Johnson, who works with immigrants who have experienced severe violence and trauma, believes that “the fears and re-traumatization of Liberians who were able to escape the war but now may have to return is unimaginable.”
“With TPS, it’s like having a stage-four cancer,” says the cab driver. “You know that you have only 18 months to live. You survive only when someone finds a cure. I hope Obama will find that cure for us.”
That may seem a long shot, with today’s divisive U.S. politics, but Brown hopes Obama will give her and fellow Liberians with TPS full rights as refugees and displaced individuals, so they can apply for permanent residency after a year.
“We’re good people,” Brown says. “We work hard.”
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