Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Liberian activists sing and dance prior to their Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) immigration status rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S. Feb. 22, 2019.
DEFERRED

Trump extended Liberians’ migrant status to 2020 but a lawsuit is coming anyway

Chidinma Irene Nwoye
By Chidinma Irene Nwoye

Relief and excitement spread through Liberian communities in the United States on Thursday (Mar. 28) after president Donald Trump issued an executive order extending the deadline of the Deferred Enforced Departure program for 4,000 Liberians living in the US to Mar. 30, 2020.

In March 2018, the Trump administration announced the termination of the program and gave over 4,000 Liberians a year— until Mar. 31, 2019—to leave the US or risk deportation. According to the White House, yesterday’s decision was made “in the foreign policy interest of the United States.”

Issued at the president’s discretion, the DED program is a deferred departure status granting people the right to work and live in the U.S. for a limited period of time.

Over the past two decades the DED status for Liberians has been renewed by both Republican and Democrat administrations and has been alternated with another humanitarian program, the Temporary Protected Status, a program offering temporary residency to individuals who cannot safely return to their home countries because of wars or natural disasters. In Liberia’s case, the statuses were granted in light of two back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003 and the 2014 Ebola outbreak, both of which have taken a toll on the country’s healthcare system and its economy.

Trump’s extension, however, has not deterred the efforts of two advocacy groups, African Communities Together and Undocublack, and fifteen Liberian DED holders suing the administration for its decision to terminate the DED program. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts on Mar. 8.

The lawsuit cites racial animus as a motive for Trump ending the DED program. The president’s words and deeds have caused many Americans to characterize him as racist. As a real estate mogul his company was sued for racial discrimination and he asked for the death penalty for the Central Park Five. As president, he has described African nations as “shithole countries”; even his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in a recent testimony to Congress disclosed Trump had asked him if he “could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a ‘shithole.”

Numbers from his administration further betray the sentiments behind Trump’s remarks. A year after Trump took office, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported a drop in the overall number of “removals” of undocumented migrants. Only African migrants saw a spike in the number of people sent back home that year.

Although overall removals dropped from 240,255 in 2016 to 226,119 in 2017, the number rose for Africans in 2017. For the top 10 African countries on ICE’s list, removals jumped by 140% from 756 in 2016 to 1815 people removed in 2017. Two African countries, Somalia and Libya, remain on the travel ban list.

“The issue is even though the president does have the discretion to extend this [DED] program, not even the president is above the United States constitution,” said Dorian Spence, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “If his discretion is exercised with racial animus or if racial animus or discriminatory intent backs a discretionary act then he has to be held to account under the constitution.”

When the Trump administration set a termination date for the program last March, they said conditions in Liberia had improved and as a result a further extension of DED was unwarranted. But the plaintiffs are skeptical, and question the supporting evidence used to back the administration’s claims.

“We don’t think that they actually solicited the expert knowledge and judgement of their own State Department and diplomatic employees or even military personnel in making that determination,” says Amaha Kassa, Executive Director of African Communities Together. “We don’t think that they took into account the expressed concern of the Liberian government in making that determination. We think that this is a conclusion that they’ve reached more for political reasons than because of any careful analysis of country conditions.”

Affected DED holders who have come forward in the lawsuit include David Kroma, a homeowner and healthcare worker in Worcester, Massachusetts. Kroma fled Liberia for the U.S. in 1999, right at the start of the second civil war. His six children are U.S. citizens ranging in age from four to fifteen. If forced to leave the US at the new deadline in 2020, Kroma will have to make the difficult decision of leaving his children behind or taking them with him to Liberia, where they will inevitably lose their US citizenship—Liberia does not allow dual citizenship.

Another plaintiff, Yatta Kiazolu, is a 28-year-old PhD student in history at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has lived in the U.S. since she was six.

Plaintiff Christina Wilson has lived in the U.S. for the past 17 years and is a nursing assistant at St. Therese Nursing Home in Minnesota, a healthcare facility that was especially anxious about the imminent Mar. 31 deadline as it employs 177 DED holders. Minnesota, in particular, has one of the largest concentrations of Liberians in the US, majority of whom are so crucial to the state’s healthcare infrastructure that its governor, Mark Dayton, wrote an open letter urging Trump to reconsider his decision to end DED.

Both the plaintiffs and the administration acknowledge the historical ties between the U.S. and Liberia. The White House tagged the relationship between the two countries as “unique” as freed African-American slaves from the U.S. helped create the modern Liberian state in 1847. Tensions between indigenous Liberians and the settlers, or Americo-Liberians, contributed to the early days of violence in the country.

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox