Analysis Immigration

In Alabama, a Liberian Teacher Awaits Her Fate as Deadline Looms for Little-Known Immigration Program (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

President Donald Trump has until March 31 to make his decision about whether to extend the program, as previous presidents have done.

UPDATE, March 28, 8:15 a.m.: On Tuesday afternoon, President Trump directed the Department of Homeland Security to “wind-down” Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) for Liberians, beginning April 1, 2018 and running through March 31, 2019. The Black Alliance for Just Immigration’s executive director, Opal Tometi, characterized Trump’s decision as doubling down on his anti-immigrant agenda. “Mr. Trump’s xenophobia and racist policies have resulted in unprecedented levels of deportation of black immigrants,” Tometi said.

In the nine years that Nancy Harris has taught pre-school at a predominantly white Methodist church in Birmingham, Alabama, she has jumpstarted the literacy of hundreds of children. The parents and larger church community have come to love and rely on Harris, whom the children playfully call “Ms. Fancy.” But until recently, they never really knew much about her background as a Liberian immigrant. The mother of three had to inform her community that she may be forced to leave the United States soon because of what may be another attack on immigrant communities by the Trump administration: the end of Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) for Liberians.

After two civil wars in Liberia killed an estimated 250,000 people from 1989 to 2003, Liberians in the United States were granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS). In 2007, George W. Bush’s administration terminated TPS for Liberia, but allowed TPS recipients to apply for DED. While it does not provide a pathway to citizenship, DED includes work authorization and safety from deportation for a designated period of time.

Since DED was first granted, President Barack Obama renewed it for Liberians every 18 months. The current extension lasts until March 31. Liberia is currently the only country with DED status, and, as America’s Voice reported, only the president can extend DED using the office’s foreign policy powers.

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Trump has until March 31 to make a decision. As ThinkProgress reported, Trump has three options: “He can choose to make an affirmative decision to extend the program; choose to make a negative decision to end the program; or not provide a reason at all,” which would automatically trigger the program’s termination.

Because of the strict nature of DED programs, Liberian immigrants like Harris are “among the most checked, vetted, secure populations of immigrants in this country,” according to the American Immigration Council. While the exact number of Liberian DED recipients is unknown, DED recipients have been in the United States for years, putting down deep roots in their communities and often coming from mixed-status families with U.S.-citizen children. But given Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and overt racism—reportedly saying in January that Black immigrants come from “shithole countries“—DED recipients like Harris are deeply concerned for their futures in the United States.

[Photo: Pre-school teacher Nancy Harris]

Courtesy of Nancy Harris.

“Of course my fear is that it will not be extended, but that has always been my fear, even under other administrations,” the 53-year-old teacher told Rewire.News in a phone interview. “I don’t know if people understand how it impacts both the U.S. and [immigrants’] countries of origin when these programs end. I support family in Liberia; I am putting my 19-year-old daughter through college [here in the United States]. If DED is not extended, if I lose my work authorization, it will impact so many more people than me,” Harris added.

The weight of taking care of family in the United States and sending money home to Liberia, through what is known as remittances, is such an overwhelming responsibility it can feel “paralyzing,” she explained. “So many people’s lives depend on my ability to work. Do Americans understand that a large percentage of the Liberian budget comes from us sending money back to Liberia? It’s not that our families aren’t working; it’s that they’re doing the best with what they have in Liberia,” Harris said.

DED Is Not “Charity”

In January, DHS Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen terminated TPS for El Salvador. TPS recipients told Rewire.News that Americans need to understand that the United States government was directly involved in the destabilization of El Salvador, including training death squads and providing hundreds of millions in economic and military aid to the country’s dictatorship during its deadly civil war that ended in 1992. When a country is destabilized, residents are often forced to migrate as economic refugees or asylum seekers, and if they come to the United States, they typically are criminalized for migrating. This cycle has played out many times.

As with El Salvador, the United States has a complicated relationship with Liberia, a republic first settled in the early 1800s by free and formerly enslaved people. Since the American Colonization Society, which was founded by supporters in 1816 with the goal of “repatriating” formerly enslaved people to Liberia, the United States’ reach and influence has never left the republic. As Public Radio International reported in 2014, it was long-lingering “tensions between the locals and the Americo-Liberians” that were “a big factor in the civil war that wrecked the country after 1989.” In this way, and because of other factors related to U.S. foreign policy, “Liberia’s civil war was an American civil war, in many respects,” the Washington Post reported in 2015.

Liberia is still recovering from its civil wars, working to develop basic infrastructure like health care, housing, and education, according to the UndocuBlack Network, a multigenerational network of currently and formerly undocumented Black people. The effects of the 2014 ebola crisis, which took the lives of 11,000 people, are still being felt by the republic today.

Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye, an organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), a group fighting for immigrant rights and racial justice with African Americans and Black immigrants, told Rewire.News that it’s important for people to understand that like TPS, DED is not “charity,” but rather “a very small step toward justice for communities.” This means that, according to the organizer, once the United States contributes to the devastation of a place, the country then does not get to dictate who among those forced to migrate is “deserving or undeserving” of remaining in the United States. Rather, the United States has an obligation to Liberian immigrants.

“Liberia is an important part of American history, but after years of western intervention, backing coups and rebels, the U.S. has also contributed to its destabilization,” Ndugga-Kabuye said. “Western intervention is at the heart of why Liberia is a difficult place to live, and why people have been forced to migrate. Providing DED to Liberians is the least we could do.”

Changing Hearts and Minds 

As of 2015, an estimated 74,000 Liberian immigrants reside in the United States, according to Pew Research. Of those, it’s not clear exactly how many are DED recipients, but as ThinkProgress reported, it’s “anywhere between 1,000 and 3,6000 people.”

African immigrants are more likely to settle in the South, but the Liberian population where Harris resides in Alabama—deep in the heart of Trump country—is very small. Jefferson County, which encompasses Birmingham, where Harris lives, largely votes Democratic, but an overwhelming 62 percent of Alabamians voted for Trump and, consequently, his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Harris said that one of the things that bothers her as an immigrant in the South is the seemingly pervasive belief that she gets “free services,” meaning the federal safety-net benefits U.S. citizens are entitled to, like food stamps and Medicaid. This is certainly not true. The mother of three told Rewire.News she is ineligible for state and federal benefits; she doesn’t even qualify for student or personal loans.

Living where she does, in the Deep South where many voted for Trump, has been a surprising experience for Harris. While people may have voted against immigrants with their support of Trump and his administration, she’s witnessed some people in the community throw their support behind those with whom members have a personal connection.

Harris told Rewire.News that the community in Birmingham has been good to her. A white couple, whose daughter Harris helped to read, told the educator that they were excited for her to teach their young twin sons. The parents did not know that Harris may soon be forced to leave the country. When she explained DED, the parents—both of whom are attorneys—understood that it was unlikely Trump would extend the program, so they connected Harris to an immigration attorney friend. That attorney is now working on Harris’ case, attempting to adjust her status as a “special immigrant” through the use of an I-360, which enables ordained ministers to petition on behalf of “religious workers” like Harris.

The teacher says that she could not have afforded the immigration attorney’s fees on her salary, with her financial obligations to family in the United States and Liberia, so many in Birmingham have pitched in. Harris, who has cobbled together a living working at several Birmingham institutions, has received donations from parents and grandparents at the Methodist church where she is primarily employed. Meanwhile, members of a nearby African-American church where Harris has taught young boys how to read also heard of her plight and have been collecting donations on her behalf—and so has a local rehabilitation facility, where Harris taught adult literacy to those in recovery.

“Me leaving would affect whites and Blacks, and I think people are afraid of losing their teacher,” Harris said. “Their children have come to depend on me to teach them how to read and that is important enough to them so that they want to help me.”

Harris explained that a personal connection and a human face on an issue can often change hearts and minds, even those who may be politically opposed to immigration. She sees a parallel to abortion: A vehemently anti-choice person may have a change of heart—though not always—when it’s their family member seeking out abortion care.

“It’s like this with all supposedly controversial issues that flood political discussions, including immigration. I have sort of become the face of immigration to certain people in my community, so their perspective is changing,” Harris said. “All I know is that I cannot even consider being sent back to Liberia right now. I am praying and accepting the help of the people in my community. All you can do is hope that somehow, people hear your pain and your cries and do something about it to keep you here.”

UPDATE, March 28, 9:10 a.m.: This piece has been updated.

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