While some media coverage might only focus on immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) is reminding the public that families also have arrived from Liberia, Somalia and Haiti. These families, BAJI says, contribute to the U.S.
Louise Stevens came to the United States in 2000 after escaping Liberia’s civil war. Like thousands of fellow Liberians, she had no choice but to leave everything behind.
“I graduated from school looking for a brighter future, but when the war began, I had to run for my life,” said Stevens, 59. “That’s how I came to America.”
Like so many immigrants who flee war, violence and conflict, Stevens struggled and worked hard to build a life in the United States. She raised a family in the home she owns in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and has provided in-home supportive care for vulnerable adults since retiring from medical-device company Medtronic.
But according to the federal government, the life she’s built is only temporary – and Stevens might be deported back to a country she feels she no longer knows.
When Stevens fled Liberia, she was granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS), ensuring she’d be eligible for employment and wouldn’t face deportation. Almost two decades later, she’s still not a U.S. citizen. And she’s far from alone.
When TPS expired for approximately 34,000 Liberians in 1999, the Clinton administration moved them to Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status, which continued to protect them from deportation, but did not create a path toward citizenship. Liberians have been in temporary status ever since.
“Why? Because Congress hasn’t moved to solve the immigration issue,” said Mustafa Jumale, policy manager for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), a grassroots organization that helps African American and Black immigrant communities advocate for racial, social and economic justice. The organization also works for permanent solutions for TPS and DED holders.
The Trump administration has threatened to end DED status, which would send thousands of Liberians, including Louise Stevens, back to a country they no longer know. In March, just days before deportation protections were scheduled to end, the Trump administration announced a second one-year extension while Congress considers remedial legislation. The deadline is now set for March 30, 2020.
Stevens said she hasn’t had a problem renewing her status under past administrations.
“Now we have to lobby and fight,” she said. “I’ve lived here for 18 years. How can that be temporary? Honestly, I don’t know how to plan on going back. I don’t even know how to start that process. When I left, there was a war. I don’t even know Liberia at this point.”
Stevens and other Black TPS and DED holders from Somalia, Haiti, and Sudan are traveling to Capitol Hill to share their stories with Congress. For many, it’s the first time they’ve done this kind of advocacy work for themselves and their communities.
“Going to these offices and sharing their personal stories move people,” said Jumale. “These are gut-wrenching stories. It’s hard for me to watch them go to office to office and share the same story.”
He added: “So many people in our communities are impacted by the termination of TPS and DED. These are people who have been in the U.S. for decades, who have families here, who have homes, who have opened businesses. There’s nothing temporary about their status. Some of these folks are at retirement age. Imagine trying to go to a different country and rebuild your life.”
Black immigrants are often missing from the national immigration debate. They represent a small percentage of the total number of immigrants in the United States, but Jumale said they’re overrepresented in detention centers and immigration proceedings. So why aren’t they included in the conversation?
“I am confused myself,” Jumale said. “If you look at Minnesota, where I live, the majority of new refugees and immigrants have come from Somalia. So you would assume that when you think about immigrants in Minnesota, you would think about Somalis. If we don’t bring these folks to the Hill, their issues won’t be addressed.”
Jumale believes that advocacy work led to the Trump administration’s decision to extend the deadline for the second time for DED holders.
“The Trump administration’s immigration framework is racist and xenophobic, and to see them provide another year for this community was really remarkable,” he said, voicing his opinion.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the American Dream and Promise Act, an immigration bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for Liberian DED, TPS, and Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals recipients. It’s now on its way to the Senate.
“It’s very comprehensive, but it has a long road before it becomes law,” Jumale said. “We are continuing to engage Senate offices.”
BAJI and Black immigrants, like Louise Stevens, will continue to organize and share their stories with lawmakers, urging them to support this bill. They’ll also work to educate the public about TPS and DED holders.
“I’ve learned a lot through this process,” Stevens said. “A lot of people don’t understand immigration. When you say immigrant, people think we’re just takers. That is not true. We give our lives to this country. We give a lot.”
Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist and host of “Your Call,” a show about politics and culture on public radio station KALW. In 2018, she wrote the Equal Voice story, “Restore Oakland Tackles Opportunity and Justice Under One Roof.” Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. Associated Press photographs are copyright protected.