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Deferred Enforced Departure

April 15, 2010

Liberians in America:
Deferred Enforced Departure

Imagine that your country has descended into a violent and chaotic civil war, rooted in both political and inter-ethnic conflicts. Yet somehow you manage to escape and find your way to a country of refuge. There, with other exiles, you begin to create new families, build communities, learn a new language and customs.

Unwilling to grant your community full citizenship, the government of the nation you now live in nonetheless agrees that it would be dangerous for you to return home, and says you can stay for as long as – in its own judgement – the danger continues.

Five years go by, then ten. You get a job, buy a home, marry – maybe to someone who is a citizen of your new country. You have children, who by law are automatically citizens, and who barely know your old language, if at all. More years go by. You feel safe, most of the time, only sometimes at night you wonder…

Then the war ends.

Beginning in the late 1980’s, thousands of Liberians began to flee their country’s civil wars.  Many managed to come to the United States and, since 1991, the U.S. has granted them what it calls Temporary Protected Status.  TPS gives Liberians the right to work here, and to remain – but only so long as the U.S. considers it unsafe for them to return to their country of origin. It was extended or renewed several times over the years but, following the end of the civil war in 2003 and the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2005, it was finally terminated in 2007.

Liberians faced the prospect of being forced to leave their homes, their jobs, and in some cases family members, to return to a situation many still saw as insecure and unsafe. Several Liberians we spoke with in Minneapolis expressed concern that Johnson-Sirleaf’s election, though welcome, had done little to alleviate the ethnic conflicts that underlay the civil war and – in the case of one person we interviewed – led to his torture and to the murder of his son.

In response to pressure both from Liberians and their supporters in the U.S. and from Liberia itself, President Bush granted former holders of TPS status a new acronym: DED, standing for Deferred Enforced Departure. (What a strange, distorted language bureaucracies create to disguise their intentions.) Federal officials said that this 18-month extension of permission to stay in the U.S. would be the last, and would expire on March 31, 2009. Not long after taking office, however, President Obama extended Liberian’s DED for a further 12 months, then again for 6 months. It is scheduled to end now on September 30, 2011.

Bureaucratic or not, names have meanings. Think about being the person in the story above, and being told that you no longer have protected status – even if you always knew that it might be temporary. Instead, now you’ve been told that you must leave. If you don’t, you’ll be subject to “enforced departure” – maybe not just now, but…

And sometimes, at night, you wonder…

Sharon Schmickle wrote about the Liberian community’s reaction to the Bush Administration’s grant of DED in 2007, for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Check the sidebar on this same page for a terrific set of background materials on this situation up to 2007 (including audio and video). Take special note of the survivors’ narratives in “Scars and Nightmares” (audio)  and “More Survivors’ Stories.”

See also Kirk Semple’s New York Times article  of March 21, 2009 on Liberians in New York.

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