On Sunday, the United States government may force me to move to Liberia — a country that my family fled more than 25 years ago. A country that, in many ways, is still fragile. A country I have never lived in and do not know.
When Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) expires, I will be left vulnerable to deportation. Covering some 4,000 Liberian nationals living in America, DED is a comparatively small program, applied only to Liberia; its termination has attracted little notice. But the decision to end it continues the Trump administration’s callous pattern of stripping protections from immigrants — a natural extension of the efforts to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and take away temporary protected status from those who fled violence and disaster in their home countries. Coupled with a refusal to provide avenues for gaining legal permanent residency in the United States, these actions have destabilized the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, threatening to cut off their futures and divide their families. Systematically dismantling these discretionary relief programs is, seemingly, the most expedient way for the administration to pursue its agenda: to force as many nonwhite, non-European immigrants out of the country as possible by capriciously taking away their legal status.
I was born in Botswana to parents who were Liberian nationals. In 1997, my father decided to move our family to Liberia, and my mother sent me, on a visitor visa, to live with my grandmother in Georgia to keep me safe from the country’s turmoil. She followed a month later, escaping the violence of the second civil war and their abusive marriage. We shared an apartment with my aunt, uncle, three cousins and grandmother. In these crowded but loving conditions, we began our new lives and started to heal.
As a child, I felt no different from my American peers. I knew that my immigrant household might have some cultural differences from theirs, but back then, it never seemed like my life was precarious. I only began to think about what it might mean not to have permanent residency as a teenager. Though my DED papers allowed me to get a job at the local Toys R Us and my driver’s license, a lack of permanent status blocked me from getting financial aid or in-state tuition for college, despite graduating from high school with honors. It meant that my aunt, a U.S. citizen, had to co-sign my private student loans — a debt that she will be responsible for if I’m forced to move to Liberia and cannot keep up with payments. Even if I could find employment there, my income would be lower than it would be here.
Despite these obstacles, I progressed in my academic and professional life. Today, I am a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Los Angeles, specializing in 20th century American history. I’ve loved getting reluctant students to fall in love with the subject and helping them see how what’s happening around them today stems from the past. I had planned to finish my dissertation and graduate next fall, and from there, pursue a teaching career. But now my future is uncertain. I can’t tell prospective employers whether I’d be authorized to work in the United States by the time I arrived in their classrooms.
Hearing commentators ask why immigrants don’t simply “do things the legal way” and “wait their turn” has only amplified my feelings of frustration and anger. All my life, I’ve been attempting to apply for U.S. citizenship or permanent residency. When I was growing up, getting my photo taken so that I could apply to the diversity lottery for a green card was an annual ritual, as predictable as school picture day. Our other path, family sponsorship, has also been fruitless. My grandmother, a U.S. citizen, applied for my mother’s permanent residency in 2006, which would have covered me as her dependent. It took four years for that application to even be approved, and at that point, we were told to expect a waiting period of 10 years until an immigrant visa number became available, which would allow my mother to leave the United States, reenter and get a green card. After my grandmother passed away in 2012, we tried another path. My stepfather became a citizen, and in 2016 applied to sponsor my mother and me. My mother, as his spouse, was approved immediately for permanent residency. Since I was over 21, and no longer considered a dependent, my application was separate from hers. It has yet to be approved, and carries a whole new waiting period of at least seven years.
Between those two applications, I’ve been waiting for 13 years to gain my permanent residency. (And, ironically, my lack of “strong ties” to my home country makes me ineligible for an F-1 international student visa.) If immigrants are expected to go through this slow and convoluted process, it’s cruel to terminate the program that has allowed us to be productive members of society, sweeping aside the years that we’ve been contributing to American society. My family and I have run the gamut of our options — but America’s sluggish, arbitrary immigration system has left me helpless, with no good choices.
After the Trump administration first announced that it would not renew DED in 2018, it offered a one-year “wind-down” period, presumably so we could adjust and make plans. I didn’t even know where to begin. After 22 years of living, studying and working in the United States with government authorization, how could I start to untangle the roots that I’d established here? How could I begin to establish them in Liberia, a country where I have no connections and only some distant relatives? My one brief visit there, at age 4, left me with only hazy memories of palm trees and the vaguest impressions of what it was like.
It’s commonplace to hear that the American immigration system is “broken” — not least from conservatives and the Trump administration itself, as they seek to justify barring newcomers from the United States. In a way, they’re not entirely incorrect: There is something deeply wrong with the way that programs like DED operate on such an ad hoc basis — and how they can be shut down on a whim, without any regard or recourse for how thousands have built their lives in this country under their protection.
Now, as a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s decision, I’m fighting to stop the end of DED and to push for a pathway to citizenship — not just for myself, or my family members, but for everyone else who is just like me; everyone else who has a life here and cannot imagine being forced to leave. While that case makes its way through the courts, we wait, our lives in limbo.