The Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness (LRIF) program is set to expire Dec. 20, leaving thousands of eligible Liberian nationals at risk of deportation by next summer when current Deferred Enforced Departure protections will also end. LRIF, which was passed in 2019 as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, provided permanent residency and deportation protection to Liberians in the U.S. who left Liberia during the civil wars in the 1990s and early 2000s. Advocates say many eligible applicants have not been able to apply due to cost prohibitive and bureaucratic roadblocks inherent in the program and exacerbated by the pandemic.
For many Liberian nationals, the sudden expiration date reflects an arbitrary decision, since the population of eligible applicants is static and time-specific. If the deadline is not extended, and former refugees are left to rely on DED’s temporary protection, Liberians who have spent 30 years fostering communities and families in the U.S. will be forced back to a country they may not even recognize.
“Getting a green card through LRIF meant a lot of relief, especially for my son who was 1 year old when we left Liberia,” says Raoul Johnson, a recipient of LRIF in Idaho. “Now we don’t have to worry anymore.”
Johnson lived most of his life in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia. But when President Charles Taylor was elected in 1997, he went into hiding fearing the armed rebel forces in the streets since he was a vocal opponent of the administration. In 1998 he arrived in the U.S. on a visiting visa, enrolled in school at the University of Idaho and he applied for Temporary Protected Status before the visa expired. According to Johnson, he would have to alternate applying for TPS and DED, depending on which program was expiring first. He did this for 21 years, spending thousands of dollars on application fees with no permanent promises, until LRIF finally provided a stable status in the country he and his family had made home.
“It was hard on all of us, that’s the situation that many Liberians face,” says Johnson. “There are even some people that were here before me, maybe eight or 10 years before I came, that’s how long we’ve been going through this.”
When former President Donald Trump decided to end temporary immigration authorization established under executive actions by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Johnson approached Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, and asked him what options existed for the Liberian community. Risch promised Johnson he would help work on passing LRIF, and it was championed by a bipartisan delegation of senators from Minnesota—where there are about 35,000 Liberians—Rhode Island, and Idaho.
“Now I can get a job and know that no one is going to lay me off because the TPS is going to expire,” says Johnson. “I don’t have to worry about that.”
But the application process was not easy. According to Breanne Palmer, the interim policy and advocacy director for UndocuBlack Network, a network of currently and formerly undocumented Black people that facilitates access to resources and advocates for undocumented Black people, many applicants faced difficulties gathering sufficient documents for the application during the pandemic, which led to processing delays. Johnson recounts that he knows of people who may have been eligible but chose not to apply out of fear that they would be deported.
“When this program came out, some people decided not to apply because they thought it’s a trap,” says Johnson. “[USCIS] will know where they are now.”
According to Palmer, the pandemic has made the routine logistical tasks of obtaining documents to prove that you lived in Liberia during the specific time frame extremely difficult because of embassy and consulate closures. Many eligible applicants were not able to get their passports renewed or ID documents renewed from Liberia. Additionally, the application fees, which can add up to more than $1,000 per person, have kept people from filing. Palmer says extending the deadline will give potential applicants more time to raise the necessary funds, acquire their documents, and receive legal assistance.
“Many people have been devastated by the economic effects of the pandemic,” says Palmer.
UndocuBlack has been working with USCIS and other organizations all year to explain how unusual certain documents can be, especially for Liberians, who fled multiple civil wars and other unrest, to obtain. Many of their documents may not be in perfect condition, or they may not have been able to retain them. The most recent policy manual update from USCIS on Oct. 29 reflects their advocacy, but that only leaves less than two months for people to take advantage of the policy change and strengthen their applications.
“Explaining those real world issues to the agency to get more flexibility has been one of our projects all year long,” says Palmer. “We’ve been racing against the clock trying to explain things to USCIS to get them to understand the real-world perspectives of their policy choices.”
As of June, about 3,500 of an estimated 10,000 eligible Liberians had submitted paperwork with only 951 approved so far, 157 denied, and the remaining either in need of more evidence, or pending a decision or an intended denial. Palmer suspects the deadline may be the result of the legislative vehicle that the program was attached to. Most recently, Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota introduced a stand-alone bill on Dec. 9 that would grant an extension, but it has yet to come to a vote.
“The LRIF program is historic, it was the first pathway to citizenship passed through Congress,” says Palmer. “It specifically benefits Black immigrants. That was such a major win for our communities when it happened in 2019. So I’m hopeful that we can rescue this program from failure, I’m hoping that Congress will step up and do their part.”