Liberian Immigrants are Running Out of Time

Members from the Liberian community gathered together on Sunday in the Christ Assembly Lutheran Church, Staten Island

In less than two months, the life of Rose Knuckles Bull, a Liberian immigrant, will change forever.

After more than 20 years of living in the United States, most of those years in Staten Island, the 68-year-old retiree will have to pack her belongings and leave the country before the end of March when her protected status as an immigrant ends.

For now, Rose Knuckles Bull is covered by a federal program called the Deferred Enforced Departure, or DED for short, which provides her with a work permit and a shield from deportation. She last entered the United States in 1999, after escaping from a civil war in her homeland that killed around 250,000 people.

In 2002, President George W. Bush granted immigrants from Liberia, like Bull, who lived here Temporary Protected Status, a special designation protecting immigrants who come from countries with civil unrest or ones that have experienced natural disasters.  When the order ended in 2007, Bush extended the protection by granting Liberians DED; President Barack Obama extended the order.  Liberia is the only country in the world protected by DED in the United States—and Bull is one of 1,000 to 3,600 people that are protected by DED, according to undated data from the Department of Homeland Security.

Last March, however, President Donald Trump ordered that the program end within 12 months.  “Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflict and has made significant progress in restoring stability and democratic governance,” said President Trump, when he ended DED last year.

Bull, along with other 5,000 to 8,000 Liberians who live in Staten Island, are skeptical —and worried. The only borough that voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 elections has one of the highest concentrations of citizens from this country outside Africa. Most of them reside in Park Hill neighborhood, referred as the “Little Liberia.” The looming deadline imposed by the president’s order has many in the community concerned about the future.

“These people have never been more nervous in their life,” said Jennifer Gray-Brumskine, the chairman of the board of directors for the Staten Island Liberian Community Association. She came to the U.S from Liberia in 1985 and now is a U.S citizen.  “Everyone is so scared.”

Bull, for one, however, isn’t scared so much as resigned to follow President´s Trump orders and leave the United States. “We don’t have a right to be here, it’s a privilege,” she said matter-of-factly.

She says she would like to return to Liberia before she’s deported in the hope that she’ll be able to retain her visitor’s visa in the process so she could come back to the United States to visit her grandchildren, who are U.S. citizens.  But it won’t be easy. “How can I go back if I never worked to get any money to go home? Social Security doesn´t pay much. I would like to save money to go home,” she said in a brief interview on Sunday.

But, with each day that passes, she is running out of time.

Bull first came to the United States in 1972 to study. She has a degree in education and has worked steadily since she came back in 1999, mostly as an office worker in the Human Resources Administration of the city.  She retired in 2013 and now, she makes ends meet with her monthly retirement checks.

“The only income I have is Social Security,” said Bull, who is currently trying to find a place to live in Liberia.

On January 28th, during a city council immigration committee session, Bitta Mostofi, the commissioner of the Mayor´s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said New York City government officials are worried about the impact that the end of DED might have in the city, but particularly in places like Staten Island.

New York City, according to Mostofi, has been working to provide legal help and information to the affected population, while advocating for immigrants in the city at the federal level.

“We are deeply concerned about federal policies that are looking to roll back programs that have protected communities for decades in our city,” Mostofi said. “Many of these individuals come from mixed status families, they have U.S citizen children, others have been here on average over a decade.”

Meanwhile, in Staten Island, where thousands of Liberians live, members of the community are unsettled and trying to deal with what is coming. Life goes on though. On Sundays, men, children in suits and shiny polished shoes, and women wearing elegant hats and long, colorful dresses, gather together at the Christ Assembly Lutheran Church in Staten Island to participate in a 150-minute-long service. Some of them have DED, others are living undocumented with an expired Temporary Protected Status. All of them are worried about what will happen to them if they get deported.

Minister Daniels understands the fear. “A lot of people are terrified, people are running to immigration,” said Levi Titus Daniels, minister of Christ Assembly Church in Staten Island. “These people have been living here for like 20-30 years; they have kids that are American citizens.”

“The government needs to rethink this decision. I don’t want to use the term barbaric,” he continued. But “I think it is going to be really harmful to these people, and I fear for these kids.”

In addition, he says, many of his parishioners wonder how they will make ends meet if they are forced to return to Liberia.   “If you go back to Liberia right now,” he said, “the country doesn’t have space for the middle class.”

Running against the clock, the Liberian’s community’s association’s Gray-Brumskine is not ready to give up yet and is fighting for a path to citizenship for Liberians who are here. The group is considering a lawsuit as other immigrants have done.

After President Trump announced the end of Temporary Protected Status for six countries, including, Haiti, Nicaragua and El Salvador, in 2018, a lawsuit was filed by a group of TPS holders and their children, against that decision. District Judge Edward Chen from California halted the end of the program for around 300,000 people from those countries.

“We want to file the lawsuit in California, just the way they filed,” Gray-Brumskine said, adding that the Liberian community needs to “buy time in court.”

Gray-Brumskine’s organization, along with other advocacy groups, have also deployed an intense lobbying effort in Congress, including having conversations with Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and others.

Last Tuesday, Reed, along with Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and other members of Congress, introduced the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act “to allow eligible Liberians to apply for permanent residency and provide them with a pathway to citizenship.”

For Liberians, like Bull, the only hope is that the act works its way through Congress before President Trump’s March 31 deadline.