Thousands of Liberians in the US who feared deportation are now on track to getting a path to citizenship, a surprising reprieve for an immigrant community at a time when the Donald Trump administration has been cutting protections.
The US Senate on Tuesday approved the National Defense Authorization Act, a sweeping bill that sets funding levels for the military and often ties in other legislation. This year's version includes an amendment that provides Liberian immigrants who have been in the country since 2014 a chance to apply for green cards and then citizenship.
Now that it has passed Congress, the bill goes to President Trump for his signature before becoming law. And Trump said earlier this month he will sign it.
Thousands of Liberians left their war-torn homes for the US and were allowed to stay in 2007 under the Deferred Enforced Departure program, which protects refugees fleeing war or devastating natural disasters from deportation. Since then, they've been granted multiple extensions to stay in the US, but President Trump had signaled that he would end the protection, citing improved conditions in Liberia.
Then in March this year, Trump extended DED status for one year while saying that US foreign policy interests "warranted affording an orderly transition ('wind-down') period to Liberian DED beneficiaries," and that the extension would give Congress a chance to bring about "remedial legislation."
As the March 2020 expiration approached, Liberians who have lived in the US for years were in legal limbo and feared deportation.
The Trump administration has already moved to end the temporary protection status of immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Haiti. The administration has also stepped up efforts to deport Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees who had been convicted of a crime in the US.
But if Trump signs the defense authorization as he has said he will, Liberians living the US will be on their way to becoming legal, permanent residents. Under the bill, Liberian immigrants who arrived in the US before Nov. 20, 2014, will be eligible for green cards as long as they have not left the US for more than 180 days. Those convicted of a violent crime would not be eligible.
As the bill passed Congress, members of the Liberian community around the US celebrated.
"We don't have adequate words to describe the relief, the joy and celebration that it brings to our community," Rev. Francis Tabla of Ebenezer Community Church, whose congregation is largely Liberian, told the Star Tribune in Minnesota.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island had been pushing for legislation to address the Liberians' issue and, earlier this month, he added the amendment to the $768 billion defense bill.
"After decades of uncertainty, this is a huge win for my Liberian brothers and sisters and a great day for America," Reed said in a statement after adding the amendment. "Liberians who've legally lived here for years, paid taxes, and made so many positive contributions to their various communities, especially in Rhode Island, deserve the opportunity to get on a path to becoming full citizens."
According to Reed's office, about 4,000 Liberians in the US would be impacted by the legislation.
Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, where a large number of Liberian immigrants live, also applauded the amendment.
"This is their home and they deserve the opportunity to become citizens," Smith tweeted.