Thousands of Liberians in U.S. Told to Go Home Some 3,600 Liberians who came to the United States under a special immigration category have been told they must go home by October 1. Now that Liberia's civil war is over, the U.S. says there is no longer any reason for them to stay.
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Thousands of Liberians in U.S. Told to Go Home

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Thousands of Liberians in U.S. Told to Go Home

Thousands of Liberians in U.S. Told to Go Home

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

Some 3,600 Liberians are about to lose the right to stay in the United States. During that West African country's civil war, the U.S. granted them temporary protected status, or TPS. But with the war over and a new government trying to rebuild, U.S. officials say all Liberians on TPS should go back home by October 1st.

As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the Liberians are not ready to do that.

Ms. MIATTA YAWSON: (Speaking foreign language)

JENNIFER LUDDEN: In a tidy townhouse west of Philadelphia, Miatta Yawson and her sister heat up a left over African rice and meat dish for lunch. Yawson came to Philadelphia seven years ago, her two sisters before that. Each month, they send hundreds of dollars to relatives back home. Every few months, they pack up a big box of clothes and food, plus asthma medicine for their mother. All items, Yawson says, are too expensive to buy in Liberia.

Ms. MIATTA YAWSON: Right now, I'm their source of income. All in the family right now maybe like 20 people depending on me - aunt, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephew. I'm paying their tuition, I'm doing everything.

LUDDEN: The family home burned down during the war, so relatives crowd in a makeshift mud shack, squeezing as many as can fit in a bed. Yawson hasn't been able to tell her six-year-old, American-born daughter that they may soon face conditions like that. Two years ago, she and her husband were able to buy a row house in Philadelphia.

Ms. YAWSON: It's a three-bedroom house, a car garage in the basement and one bathroom. But it's comfortable. My daughter get her own room. I painted it into the character she loves: princess.

LUDDEN: It's decorated in princess theme.

Ms. YAWSON: Yes, princess - in princess theme. In Africa, she won't have that. It puts tears in my eyes. It made me very, very proud.

LUDDEN: 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. Yawson's sister does not want to give her name but says she can't understand why the U.S. wants to force them out.

Unidentified Woman #1: We are not doing anything wrong. We are paying our mortgage, we don't have bad credit, we are not criminals. You know, we are living like normal Americans.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

LUDDEN: In fact, Liberia's government does not want them back. The embassy in Washington recently hosted a celebration of the country's 160th year of independence.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: As people lined up for fish in hot pepper sauce and home-cooked plantains, there was praise for the new government's reconstruction efforts. One vendor offered new Liberian phone books - all cell phones, there were no LAN lines. He said some buyers are exploring business opportunities. But no one in the crowd said they were making plans to pack up and move back.

Ambassador CHARLES MINOR (Liberia): Liberia is in no position to absorb them.

LUDDEN: Charles Minor is Liberia's ambassador to the U.S. He says his country's unemployment rate is 85 percent; even basic necessities are lacking.

Ambassador MINOR: We do not have the housing for them. There has been years of destruction of our schools. Teachers have left the country. So we have a very serious problem.

LUDDEN: Some don't think Liberians will have to go back.

Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies): I'll believe it when I see it.

LUDDEN: Mark Krikorian is with the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants to reduce immigration. He says time and again administrations have threatened to end the protected status for Liberians and others only to relent at the last minute.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: We have always given every group that complains loudly enough an exception, and at some point that has to stop. When we have a tight system, then we can actually afford some flexibility.

LUDDEN: Still, three years ago, temporary status was cut off for several thousand Sierra Leoneans.

Back in Philadelphia activist Voffee Jabateh, of the African social services group ACANA, takes nothing for granted.

Mr. VOFFEE JABATEH (Activist, ACANA): How are you?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah?

Mr. JABATEH: Hello.

LUDDEN: Jabateh greets a storeowner on a strip full of Liberian food shops, five-and-dimes, and hair braiding salons. He says the government should bear in mind Liberians 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.

Mr. JABATEH: We cannot connect with any other culture in the world as quickly as we connect with the American culture. We see America as a parent. Now you're telling us that your parent is going to be rejecting you.

LUDDEN: With just a month before their status is to expire, Liberians say they're facing questions from nervous employers. Some say they'll go underground. Others are loath to do that and say they will return home, but not before they're sure there's no other option.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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