Liberian Americans and their supporters are suing President Donald Trump and the Department of Homeland Security—and protesting on Capitol Hill—over the administration's termination of legal residency status for community members who have built lives in the United States for decades.
A lawsuit, filed in a Massachusetts federal court Friday, alleges that the administration's decision to end Deferred Enforced Departure for Liberians was not premised on a sound consideration of the safety of returning Liberians to Liberia. DED is a designation, issued at the discretion of president, that protects recipients—at present, exclusively of Liberian origin—from deportation. The suit alleges the decision is based on what it describes as "part of an overarching immigration agenda by the Trump administration to forcibly remove non-white, non-European immigrant families from the United States," and therefore targets a protected class.
The U.S. government granted Liberians Temporary Protected Status, which allows escapees from natural and political disaster to remain in the U.S., in 1991 and again in 1999 amid deadly civil war in Liberia. In 2007, then-President George W. Bush canceled TPS for Liberians, instead allowing them to apply for DED status, a designation that had been renewed every 18 months—over the span of three presidential administrations—until the Trump administration announced last year that it would end it. DED status for Liberian nationals is set to terminate on March 31st.
The pending suit cites several instances in which Trump has evinced a "racial animus" underlying his immigration policy. It includes, for example, Trump's denigration of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists as well as reports that Trump has referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and nations in the continent of Africa as "shithole" nations sending immigrants to the U.S.
The lawsuit's argument that the Trump administration's decision to end DED protections for U.S. Liberians was premised on racial discrimination reflects the arguments in ongoing litigation over the administration's decision to end TPS designation for about 240,000 U.S. residents from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador.
"The Trump administration has demonstrated a clear pattern, through statements and policies, that it disfavors immigrants of color and black and African immigrants in particular," says Oren Nimni, staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights, one of the groups representing the U.S. Liberians and their children who are the plaintiffs on the case. "Because of this clear pattern and because of the high stakes for these immigrants and their U.S. citizen children, we are confident that the Court will take appropriate action."
The Department of Homeland Security did not comment on DED, but a spokesperson, who asked to remain unnamed, blames the news media for not covering what the spokesperson described as the administration's fervent efforts to have Congress grant legal status to the TPS recipients whose legal status the administration has itself revoked. "What is often not reported is that the Trump administration has forcefully advocated for Congressional action to provide legal status for long-standing TPS beneficiaries in good standing: a change to the law is needed, not judicial intervention," the spokesperson writes in an email.
Federal immigration authorities are reportedly unaware of exactly how many U.S. Liberian nationals had DED status: Immigrant rights advocates are suing those same authorities over an absence of centralized record-keeping in the separation of immigrant families. But it is estimated that there are well over 4,000 living in the U.S., primarily in Liberian community enclaves in Minnesota and across the country. "I would say a majority of Liberians either know or are associated with somebody who is a recipient of DED or are themselves a recipient of DED," says Fata Acquoi, an organizer whose mother was a DED recipient.
Nimni observed that, for many Liberians who have set roots in the U.S. since the 1990s and have U.S.-born children, the effects of deportation could be catastrophic. "For many, [returning to Liberia] would be a death sentence. They have lived, worked, and built families here for almost three decades. They have nothing to go back to in Liberia," he says. "The economy, infrastructure, and health services are still reeling from war and the ebola outbreak."
The decision would mean a bleak future not just for Liberian DED recipients, advocates like Nimni say; the fall-out would be felt around the world.
"People are trying to figure out where to leave their kids—with community members, in foster care. It's tearing families apart," Acquoi says.
In Liberia, recent events reveal a country ill-equipped to handle a sudden influx of relative newcomers who have not had to navigate the country's realities for decades. An International Monetary Fund report last week warned about skyrocketing inflation and overall economic instability there. "They're trying to rebuild," Acquoi says. "This is not the time to send an influx of people to Liberia."
It remains to be seen how events in the litigation over TPS recipients will affect the DED case. In April, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild published documents, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, that show that the administration's decision to terminate TPS for Haitians actually ran counter to Department of Homeland Security findings on persistent instability in the country. The documents called into question whether the administration was actively ignoring the known dangers of repatriating former TPS recipients.
In October, a federal judge in California ruled in favor of a lawsuit on the behalf of former TPS recipients from the four countries, temporarily stopping the administration from ending the designation for beneficiaries. Late last month, the Department of Homeland Security extended TPS protections for those countries until January of 2020.
The Department of Homeland Security spokesperson underlines the department's compliance with the court ruling over TPS designation for the four involved nations. "TPS was terminated as required by law by the Secretary [Kirstjen Nielsen] for a number of countries," the spokesperson writes. "Litigation ensued and [the department] is complying with the intervening court order. A recent Federal Register Notice is evidence of that continued compliance."
Nimni believes that the litigation over TPS can only bolster his case. "The [Trump administration's TPS and DED] decisions are very similar," Nimni says. "Both explicitly harm thousands of immigrants of color and both were motivated by the racial animus held by Trump. The DED program has some different contours from TPS but the harm and motivations for cancelation are similar."
Meanwhile, Liberian Americans aren't waiting for the courts to weigh in. Even with legal action pending, "the need right now is more immediate than that" for U.S. Liberian communities affected by the Trump administration's decision, says Acquoi, the lead organizer of "Liberian DED Actions Days," a series of actions to defend U.S. Liberians' status on Wednesday and Thursday on Capitol Hill. The event "will include campaigning for congressional bills to provide permanent resident status for Liberians on DED/ TPS," according to a flyer for the event.