Liberians in U.S. face tough choice as immigration program ends

Magdalene Menyongar’s day starts with a 5:30 a.m. conference call with women from her church. They pray together as Menyongar makes breakfast and drives to work, reflecting on everything they are thankful for.

But lately, the prayers have turned to matters of politics and immigration. They pray with increasing urgency for Congress or President Trump to act before Menyongar, 48, faces deportation to her native Liberia, where she fled civil war nearly 25 years ago.

In less than six weeks, the order that has allowed her and more than 800 other immigrants from the former American colony in West Africa to live in the United States for decades will end, the result of Trump’s decision last year to terminate a program that every other president since George H.W. Bush supported.

Come March 31, Menyongar will face a choice: Return to Liberia and leave behind her 17-year-old daughter, an American citizen, or stay in the United States, losing her work authorization and becoming an undocumented immigrant.

“It’s hard to think about because you have built a life,” said Menyongar, who works as a certified nursing assistant. “Maybe it’s part of my brain that I try to block out. When I think about it, all I do is pray.”

Menyongar is among thousands of Liberian immigrants who were given temporary permission to stay in the United States in 1999, when President Bill Clinton implemented “deferred enforced departure.” DED was routinely extended by previous administrations but is set to end under Trump’s effort to terminate programs for immigrants without permanent status, which also has endangered Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and temporary protected status for immigrants from 10 other countries.

Temporary protected status, or TPS, was established by Congress in 1990 for citizens of countries suffering from war, environmental disaster, health epidemics or other unsafe conditions. They are given temporary permission to work in the United States and travel abroad without fear of deportation.

A class-action lawsuit filed Feb. 12 in a federal court in California seeks to block the Trump administration from ending TPS for immigrants from Honduras and Nepal. In October, a federal judge in the same court issued an injunction that stalled the end of TPS for citizens of four other countries.

But that court action does not apply to the smaller and lesser-known DED program, which operates purely at the president’s discretion and gives no statutory basis on which to sue.

Without a change of heart from the president — or new legislation from Congress — Liberians living in the United States under DED will lose their work authorization and become subject to deportation. Instead of self-deporting, many are expected to stay in the United States in hopes of getting a hearing in immigration courts, a process that could take years.

Trump has made curtailing illegal immigration a central tenet of his agenda, saying in his State of the Union address this month that immigrants should come to the United States “in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”

But critics say his move to end protection for Liberians, leaving them undocumented after decades in the country legally, reflects an immigration policy that is capricious and, at worst, driven by racial bias.

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