President Donald Trump is ending a program that has allowed approximately 3,600 Liberians to stay in the U.S. for over two decades, giving them one year from now to leave the country or face deportation.
It's the latest example of Trump ending a program that's protected tens of thousands of immigrants from various countries from deportation and kept them in the U.S. legally. It comes as the president and his allies seek to quietly but steadily change immigration in America by reversing previous presidents' executive actions.
One immigrant advocacy group called Trump's move "harsh, cruel, and disgusting."
The program, called Deferred Enforced Departure, or DED, is for Liberians who in the past were granted what's called Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, after the civil war in Liberia. In 2007, President George W. Bush ended TPS for Liberia, but allowed recipients already in the U.S. to apply for DED instead, an action President Barack Obama renewed throughout his two terms.
That latest renewal was set to expire on Saturday, March 31, and Tuesday Trump gave formal notification that he is ending the program and giving recipients one year to leave the U.S. or possibly face deportation.
To critics, the decision threatens to uproot thousands of law-abiding Liberian immigrants who have been in the U.S. for a generation.
"This is home for me, and the thought of leaving my daughter is emotional. I’m pleading with the President and Congress to extend DED," one recipient, Nancy Harris of Alabama — who's been in the U.S. for 18 years with her husband, a pastor -- told reporters Monday.
But immigration hawks say the decision is a return to the law's original intention, given that the war in Liberia ended long ago. That reasoning was laid out in Trump's decision, writing in his formal letter to the secretaries of Homeland Security and State, "Through consultation with appropriate executive departments and agencies and my advisors, I have been informed that conditions in Liberia have improved. Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflict and has made significant progress in restoring stability and democratic governance."
"Accordingly, I find that conditions in Liberia no longer warrant a further extension of DED, but that the foreign policy interests of the United States warrant affording an orderly transition ("wind-down") period to Liberian DED beneficiaries," he added.
That "wind-down" will last one year from Saturday, giving beneficiaries until March 31, 2019, to either change their immigration status, leave the country, or be deported.
Trump's decision was met with fury and anxiety by his critics and Liberian recipients' defenders.
"Let’s be clear: This decision was a show of heart by the Trump Administration," said Patrice Lawrence, the national policy and advocacy director of UndocuBlack Network, an immigrant advocacy group focused on black people. "To ask people who have been here since the late 1990's to leave is harsh, cruel, and disgusting. You have a large group of people who now feel unstable. We see this administration’s relentless anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric as a concerted effort to make every immigrant undocumented."
Many vowed not to depart without a fight.
"To see that Liberians in the United States have stabilized their lives — and I think that’s part of the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness — and still uproot us and send us back to Liberia will force us to become refugees all over again," said Caroline Grimes, a DED recipient in Minnesota. "We must let Donald Trump know that this decision is unacceptable."
El Salvador is the largest single group of TPS holders with about 262,500 beneficiaries, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which manages the program. Salvadorans have until Sept. 9, 2019, to either adjust their immigration status, leave the U.S. or face potential deportation.
Approximately 58,600 Haitians with protected status will lose their benefits on July 22, 2019, while status for 5,300 Nicaraguan beneficiaries is set to terminate on Jan. 5, 2019, and just over 1,000 Sudanese TPS holders will no longer be eligible as of Nov. 2, 2018.
In November, then-Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke delayed a decision for 86,000 Hondurans — the second largest group of TPS holders — and determined the department needed more information. The delay triggered a six-month extension for Honduras with a new expiration date of July 5, 2018. DHS is required to provide a 60-day notice before terminating any designation.
There has been talk of Congress stepping in and aiding these groups, but so far, no legislative fix has gained steam.