While some Liberians living in the U.S. fear deportation when their temporary protection status expires at the end of this month, The United Methodist Church in Liberia is preparing to welcome its brothers and sisters back home.
Almost a year ago, President Donald Trump terminated Deferred Enforced Departure status for Liberians living in the United States, effective March 31. The move affects more than 800 immigrants and thousands of family members.
Former President Bill Clinton first authorized Deferred Enforced Departure for Liberians in 1999 following civil war in the West African country. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama repeatedly extended the program. DED is not a specific immigration status, but for a designated period of time, DED holders are not subject to removal from the U.S.
In a presidential memorandum last March, Trump cited improved conditions in Liberia.
“Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflict and has made significant progress in restoring stability and democratic governance,” the president said. “Liberia has also concluded reconstruction from prior conflicts, which has contributed significantly to an environment that is able to handle adequately the return of its nationals.”
He also noted that since the 2014 Ebola outbreak, “Liberia has made tremendous progress in its ability to diagnose and contain future outbreaks.”
The Rev. Henry S. Dolopei, a Liberian and associate pastor of Brooklyn United Methodist Church in Minnesota, said there are several Liberian United Methodists who will be going back to Liberia if the DED order is enforced.
“We are in prayer with them and hoping that their stay will be extended and that proper documentation will begin so that we do not repeat this traumatic situation as it has been over the years.”
In the past 25 years, many Liberians have found refuge in the United States. They have gone to school, developed careers and raised families. However, if DED is not extended, they risk either being deported to a country where they have not been in decades or living as undocumented immigrants in the U.S. They will lose their work authorization. Some will leave behind their U.S.-born children.
Others will choose to remain in the United States, awaiting an immigration hearing. That could be a lengthy process.
Bishop Samuel Quire Jr. of the Liberia Episcopal Area said The United Methodist Church in Liberia is ready to welcome home its members, but it does not have the capacity to respond to all of the individual and legal needs that they may have.
He noted that being deported can be difficult and results in all sorts of negative actions, including suicide.
“It is not a good thing to uproot any Liberian who has been living (in the U.S.) for more than 20 years,” the bishop said.
However, he added, “going back home should not be interpreted as the worst thing that will ever happen to them.
“We are in prayer with them and hoping that United Methodists who are part of the U.S. government will lead the lobbying process that will help to extend the DED program.”
Abdullah Kiatamba, leader of a U.S.-based advocacy group, Liberian Immigration Campaign, said chaos would prevail in Liberian communities scattered throughout the U.S. if the government enforces the change.
“Families will be separated, children will be left unprotected, and senior citizens who are critically ill might be facing possible death,” he said.
Kiatamba said his group has lobbied the U.S. Congress to continue DED. The advocacy group also is assisting those whose cases require legal processes.
He said his group is reaching out to the Liberian government either to work out a better resettlement package for the returnees or to negotiate with the U.S. government for a long-term extension period.
“We did what we had to do,” he said, “but the chances of that deadline being extended are 50-50.”
He said in addition to engaging congressional leaders, most of the Liberians he has heard from are considering other countries, especially Canada.
“Anxiety among Liberians is getting higher by the day,” Kiatamba added, “and there is nothing we can do about it besides consoling them.”
Some United Methodists in Liberia are hoping to calm those fears.
“As a former post-war returnee, I understand what relocation means, especially the amount of uncertainty that dwells with one who has been away for many years,” said Octavius Quarbo, communications director of Alexander Priestly Camphor United Methodist Church in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
He stressed that despite the dissimilarities between income in the U.S. and Liberia, there are many opportunities in the country to help them improve their lives in addition to enjoying the peace associated with stable and predictable residence status.
Pastor Rose Farhat, director of United Methodist Women in Liberia, said the church has to be prepared to provide assistance to returning Liberians.
“Our Christian commitment demands that we respond with welcoming hospitality to those who have been away so long, reaching out as an inviting church to encourage, comfort and enable an easy adjustment to life in Liberia.”
She also said the church needs to encourage the government to engage the U.S. government on behalf of its citizens.
“It is important to remind those who will have to return not to be overwhelmed with fear of returning home. After all, we have a faithful God who is always in control,” Farhat said.
However, some Liberians living in the United States fear their homeland is not prepared to receive a sudden influx of returnees.
The Rev. Paye Cooper Mondolo, former superintendent from the Weala District in Liberia, agrees. He said the country does not have the capacity to employ those capable Liberians that will be returning home as a result of DED.
“The church should encourage and help with the negotiations processes that will lead to the extension of the DED program,” he said.
Muriel Nelson, president of United Methodist Women in Liberia, encouraged her Liberian brothers and sisters in the U.S. to make the best of the situation.
“Liberia is a beautiful place. Come and join in the nation-building process and most of you can make meaningful contributions.”
Swen is a communicator in Liberia. News media contact: Vicki Brown, Nashville, Tennessee, (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].