Bush Extends Liberians' Residency

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

President Bush has granted a short-term reprieve for thousands of Liberians who have lived in the United States for as many as 16 years but who could have faced deportation beginning Oct. 1, when their temporary residency permits were to expire.

Citing "compelling foreign-policy reasons," Bush ordered an 18-month stay of deportation Wednesday for approximately 3,500 Liberians with "Temporary Protected Status," a category granted to those from certain countries recovering from natural disasters or armed conflict.

Since 1991, thousands of Liberians have been allowed to live and work in the United States under the protected status while civil war devastated their west African nation, which was founded by freed U.S. slaves. The 14-year war ended in 2003, and last year the U.S. government judged Liberia stable and terminated the temporary permits.

That came as a shock to Liberians in the United States, many of whom had bought homes, started families and launched careers, and they dreaded the prospect of returning to a country where 85 percent of people are unemployed, infectious disease is epidemic and electricity and running water are scarce, according to a 2006 U.N. report.

Liberian community leaders said they were grateful for the decision and would use the next 18 months to push for permanent residency for those with the temporary status. Leaders will be "more proactive" and encourage those affected to contact members of Congress, said Isaac Zawolo, national general secretary of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas.

"We are excited, but also, we are cognizant of the fact that after two years, our people will still go through this process," said Boniface Satu, president of the Washington region's Liberian Community Association. "We want to use this time to appeal to the American government to see if they can finally close this chapter."

The authorization of "Deferred Enforced Departure" comes after months of lobbying by Liberian leaders in the United States, who said they pleaded their case in several meetings with members of Congress and presidential advisers. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf asked Bush last month to consider granting deferred departure to eligible Liberians, according to a statement released by her spokesman yesterday. The statement said that Liberians in the United States send home $6 million a month, "contributing immensely to the country's domestic economy."

A bill that would have extended Liberians' temporary protected status for one year passed the House in late July but was not voted on by the Senate. Proposals in both chambers to grant permanent residency to Liberians with that status remain in limbo.

"This is a very important decision on [Bush's] part, recognizing that Liberia is still in its formative stages of development as a new democracy and needs to get its feet underneath it before it can absorb the return of the diaspora," said Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), who sponsored both House bills. Of the Liberians, he said: "Their ancestors built America, and they deserve to be Americans and Liberians."

For Mary Toe Tarpeh of Germantown, a Liberian with temporary protected status, the news means a chance to finish the master's degree she is working on at Strayer University and a temporary end to worries about the fate of 15 relatives in Liberia who survive on her financial support.

"It is a major break," Tarpeh, 41, said. "At least we have another year."

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