Some 3,600 Liberians living in the U.S. may be forced return to their country next month. The Liberians came to the U.S. under a special immigration category known as Temporary Protected Status. TPS was first granted in 1991, as Liberia descended into a decade of brutal conflict. It's something of a fallback for those who don't qualify as a refugee and can't obtain a permanent green card through marriage or work. But with Liberia's war over, and a new government working to rebuild, the U.S. says that those on TPS must return home by October 1.
As the deadline nears, community members and Liberia's government say the West African nation is not prepared to accept them back, and they are frantically lobbying for a reprieve from Congress or the Bush administration.
In a tidy townhouse in Philadelphia, Miatta Yawson cannot fathom the thought of going back. Each month, she and her two sisters here send hundreds of dollars to relatives back home. Every few months, they pack a big box of clothes, food and asthma medicine for their mother, items Yawson says are too expensive to buy in Liberia.
"All in the family right now, 20 people are depending on me," she says. "Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephew. I'm paying the tuition, I'm doing everything."
The family home in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, burned down during the war, so Yawson's relatives are crowded into a makeshift mud shack, squeezing in as many as can fit in a bed. Yawson hasn't been able to tell her 6-year-old American-born daughter that they, too, may soon face conditions like that. Two years ago, she and her husband managed to buy a row house in Philadelphia.
"It's a three-bedroom house, a garage in the basement, and one bathroom," she says. "But it's comfortable. My daughter has her own room. I painted it with the character she loves: princesses. In Africa, she won't have that, and it puts tears in my eyes."
Yawson dissolves into sobs as she explains how proud she is to be a homeowner. Liberians have been proud, too, of their legal status. But since they'll soon lose that if they don't leave, many are wary of speaking out. Yawson's sister, who does not want to give her name, says she can't understand why the U.S. wants to force them out.
"We are not doing anything wrong," she says. "We are paying our mortgage, we don't have bad credit, we are not criminals. You know, we are living like normal Americans."
In fact, Liberia's government does not want these citizens back just yet. When the embassy in Washington recently hosted a celebration of the country's 160th year of independence, people lining up for home-cooked plaintains and fish in hot pepper sauce praised the new government's reconstruction efforts. One vendor offered new Liberian phone books — all cell numbers as there are no landlines — and said some buyers were exploring business opportunities. But no one in the crowd was making plans to pack up and move back.
"Liberia is in no position to absorb them," says Charles Minor, Liberia's ambassador to the United States. He says the unemployment rate is 85 percent and even basic necessities are lacking.
"We don't have the housing for them," he adds. "There has been years of destruction of our schools. Teachers have left the country. So we have a very serious problem."
Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies thinks the Liberians will not have to go back in the end. Krikorian wants to reduce immigration, and he complains that time and again, administrations have threatened to end protected status for Liberians and others, only to relent at the last minute.
"We have always given every group that complains loudly enough an exception," he says, "and that has to stop. When we have a tight system, then we can actually afford some flexibility."
Still, three years ago, TPS was cut off for several thousand Sierra Leoneans. So Philadelphia activist Voffee Jabateh, of the African social services group ACANA, takes nothing for granted. As he strolls a street packed with Liberian food shops, five-and-dimes, and hair-braiding salons, Jabateh says the local economy would take a hit if those on protected status had to leave.
In Minneapolis, where there is another concentration of Liberians, so many of them work in health care that hospital and city officials have joined the lobbying effort on their behalf.
With just a month before their status is to expire, Liberians say they're facing questions from nervous employers and a few have already been forced from their jobs. Some say they'll go underground, but others are loath to do that. They say they will go home, but not before they're sure there's no other option.
If nothing else, activist Jabateh says, the U.S. should bear in mind Liberia's special relationship with the U.S. The country was settled by freed American slaves, and served as the center for America's cold war campaign in Africa.
"We cannot connect with any other culture in the world as quickly as we connect with American culture," he says. "We see America as a parent. Now you're telling us that your parent is going to be rejecting you."