The Johnston family prays together and stays together, huddled inside their Washington area house, too frightened to venture outside or answer the front door. "If you don't tell us you are coming," Anita Kennedy Johnston said, "we don't open the door."
The Johnstons -- Anita, 48, husband James, 54, and daughter Alice, 27 -- have lived this way since May, when the Department of Homeland Security canceled temporary protected status for about 3,000 people from Sierra Leone. That status allows noncitizens to obtain work, driver's licenses and property while they are in the United States.
The West African nation was dubbed "the worst place on Earth" by writers who described its 10-year civil war, in which combatants subjected civilians to a variety of torture, including amputation by machete and forcing hands into boiling oil. The war ended in 2002, and Homeland Security asked Sierra Leoneans who did not have U.S. citizenship to leave by May 3 of this year. "Those who do not comply with this requirement may be subject to removal," a department statement said.
The withdrawal of temporary protected status, often called "special status," has sent the Johnstons and thousands of other Sierra Leoneans around the United States into hiding and opened a debate about the morality of deporting immigrants to a nation still reeling from war.
Paul Barrow, a Sierra Leone journalist who exposed government corruption and torture in his country, was seized from his New Jersey home in May and deported to Sierra Leone the following month, according to a spokesman for the Newark office of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Among those threatened with deportation is former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback B.J. Tucker, who was hoping the team would apply for a P-1 visa on his behalf before he was released in May, a team spokesman said.
Friends of Sierra Leone, a nonprofit organization founded by former Peace Corps volunteers, is lobbying for an extension of the protected status. The year-long protection was extended five times under the Clinton administration and the current administration since it was first granted to Sierra Leoneans in 1997.
The Bush administration has also withdrawn the protected status of a few hundred immigrants from the island of Montserrat, just south of Puerto Rico. The islanders were received in the United States after a 1995 volcanic eruption killed 19 people and left most of the island uninhabitable.
When Congress passed the law in 1990, it mandated that the status be granted during armed conflict, environmental disaster or extraordinary circumstances.
Dan Kane, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the Bush administration was "carrying out the will of Congress" when it terminated special status for Sierra Leoneans. Reading from the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990, Kane said a three-fifths majority vote in the Senate and a simple majority vote in the House are required to change the law. "Our hands are tied," he said.
Donald L. Mooers, a former Peace Corps volunteer who is an immigration lawyer, disagreed, saying the president has the power to extend temporary protected status to aliens facing dire circumstances.
"There are no jobs, no infrastructure" in Sierra Leone, Mooers said. "The war was largely funded by supporters of al Qaeda. They'd be returning to cruel and unusual circumstances. Why is the president singling out this group of people?"
The United States resettles more refugees than any other nation, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, which relied on data from the State Department for a report. But in the last decade, and especially after Sept. 11, 2001, the number of refugees allowed into the country has fallen, from more than 112,000 in 1991 to fewer than 29,000 in 2003.
Randolph Capps, a research associate for the Urban Institute who studies immigration policy, said background checks on refugees intensified after the terrorist attacks, reducing the numbers allowed in. But once here, Capps said, groups of refugees are treated differently, depending on where they are from.
Sierra Leoneans, who are English-speaking, tend to fit well into American society, Capps said. "They are valuable to the U.S. economy, working in areas like nursing and long-term care. These are areas where there are shortages right now," he said.
Since May, the Johnstons said, they have been dismissed from jobs as nurse's aides and clinical helpers because of their change in status. Two members of the family found other work but fear those employers will fire them as well. All said they are afraid to drive to work, because of the prospect that a minor traffic violation could lead to deportation.
"It's very difficult," said Daphne Sawyerr-Dunn, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Sierra Leone and is a member of Friends of Sierra Leone. "This is just one of thousands of families. You hear these stories all the time."
Sierra Leoneans fear their lives would be threatened if they were to return to their country, which borders equally troubled Liberia, whose citizens still have temporary protected status. The average life expectancy is about 32 years for men and 35 years for women.
Anita Johnston came to the United States for a visit in 1989 and stayed illegally after her visa expired. Her daughter followed two years later. They applied for protected status six years after Sierra Leone's civil war started in 1991.
James Johnston stayed behind to continue working at the airport in the capital city of Freetown. But as war roiled around him, he said, he eventually felt "my life was at stake." Gunmen banged at the door of his house, which was made of drywall, while shouting threats.
"It was a trauma for most of us," he said. "One night they killed 100 people. Then they displayed the bodies out in the street. They burned people in their homes. That was common. They were vicious."
He said the family's home was burned shortly after he fled, in 1996. Rebels who killed and tortured civilians roam the city freely, Johnston said. Sierra Leonean parents of children who were born in the United States are agonizing over whether to take them to an impoverished nation with a strikingly high infant mortality rate or leave them behind, Sawyerr-Dunn said.
Sitting at a kitchen table in a friend's dining room, Alice Johnston spoke of a life in hiding. "I spend most of my day at home," she said. "I pray a lot. You hope the next day will be better than the day before." Her parents nodded in agreement.