Thousands of Liberians in U.S. Told to Go Home
Some 3,600 Liberians living in
the U.S. may be forced return to their country next
month. The Liberians came to the U.S. under a special
immigration category known as Temporary Protected
Status. TPS was first granted in 1991, as Liberia
descended into a decade of brutal conflict. It's
something of a fallback for those who don't qualify as a
refugee and can't obtain a permanent green card through
marriage or work. But with Liberia's war over, and a new
government working to rebuild, the U.S. says that those
on TPS must return home by October 1.
As the deadline nears, community
members and Liberia's government say the West African
nation is not prepared to accept them back, and they are
frantically lobbying for a reprieve from Congress or the
In a tidy townhouse in
Philadelphia, Miatta Yawson cannot fathom the thought of
going back. Each month, she and her two sisters here
send hundreds of dollars to relatives back home. Every
few months, they pack a big box of clothes, food and
asthma medicine for their mother, items Yawson says are
too expensive to buy in Liberia.
"All in the family right now, 20
people are depending on me," she says. "Aunts, uncles,
cousins, nieces, nephew. I'm paying the tuition, I'm
The family home in Liberia's
capital, Monrovia, burned down during the war, so
Yawson's relatives are crowded into a makeshift mud
shack, squeezing in as many as can fit in a bed. Yawson
hasn't been able to tell her 6-year-old American-born
daughter that they, too, may soon face conditions like
that. Two years ago, she and her husband managed to buy
a row house in Philadelphia.
"It's a three-bedroom house, a
garage in the basement, and one bathroom," she says.
"But it's comfortable. My daughter has her own room. I
painted it with the character she loves: princesses. In
Africa, she won't have that, and it puts tears in my
Yawson dissolves into sobs as she
explains how proud she is to be a homeowner. Liberians
have been proud, too, of their legal status. But since
they'll soon lose that if they don't leave, many are
wary of speaking out. Yawson's sister, who does not want
to give her name, says she can't understand why the U.S.
wants to force them out.
"We are not doing anything
wrong," she says. "We are paying our mortgage, we don't
have bad credit, we are not criminals. You know, we are
living like normal Americans."
In fact, Liberia's government
does not want these citizens back just yet. When the
embassy in Washington recently hosted a celebration of
the country's 160th year of independence, people lining
up for home-cooked plaintains and fish in hot pepper
sauce praised the new government's reconstruction
efforts. One vendor offered new Liberian phone books —
all cell numbers as there are no landlines — and said
some buyers were exploring business opportunities. But
no one in the crowd was making plans to pack up and move
"Liberia is in no position to
absorb them," says Charles Minor, Liberia's ambassador
to the United States. He says the unemployment rate is
85 percent and even basic necessities are lacking.
"We don't have the housing for
them," he adds. "There has been years of destruction of
our schools. Teachers have left the country. So we have
a very serious problem."
Mark Krikorian of the Center for
Immigration Studies thinks the Liberians will not have
to go back in the end. Krikorian wants to reduce
immigration, and he complains that time and again,
administrations have threatened to end protected status
for Liberians and others, only to relent at the last
"We have always given every group
that complains loudly enough an exception," he says,
"and that has to stop. When we have a tight system, then
we can actually afford some flexibility."
Still, three years ago, TPS was
cut off for several thousand Sierra Leoneans. So
Philadelphia activist Voffee Jabateh, of the African
social services group ACANA, takes nothing for granted.
As he strolls a street packed with Liberian food shops,
five-and-dimes, and hair-braiding salons, Jabateh says
the local economy would take a hit if those on protected
status had to leave.
In Minneapolis, where there is
another concentration of Liberians, so many of them work
in health care that hospital and city officials have
joined the lobbying effort on their behalf.
With just a month before their
status is to expire, Liberians say they're facing
questions from nervous employers and a few have already
been forced from their jobs. Some say they'll go
underground, but others are loath to do that. They say
they will go home, but not before they're sure there's
no other option.
If nothing else, activist Jabateh
says, the U.S. should bear in mind Liberia's special
relationship with the U.S. The country was settled by
freed American slaves, and served as the center for
America's cold war campaign in Africa.
"We cannot connect with any other
culture in the world as quickly as we connect with
American culture," he says. "We see America as a parent.
Now you're telling us that your parent is going to be