Liberians seeking green cards face time crunch. Advocates seek deadline extension

Voffee Jabateh poses for a photo

Voffee Jabateh, CEO of ACANA, on Chester Avenue in West Philadelphia, is pictured in a file photo. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A program with the potential to provide green cards to hundreds of Liberians living in Pennsylvania is poised to end this month.

A spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, said it has already garnered the number of applicants it expected. But local members of the Liberian community and immigration attorneys say thousands of people could be missing out if the Dec. 20 deadline is not extended.

“Currently, the program is failing,” said Breanne Palmer, Interim Policy and Advocacy Director for the UndocuBlack Network. Distrust of the government, paperwork delays, and even supply chain issues have kept application numbers down, said attorneys and advocates working directly with applicants.

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The Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act, which passed in 2019 with bipartisan support, was the first law extending permanent legal status to a new group of people in more than a decade. It offers green cards to Liberian-born U.S. residents who can prove they have been in the United States since at least Nov. 20, 2014, among other criteria.

The largest number of applications, 642, have come from Pennsylvania, according to federal data, followed by Minnesota, Maryland, and New Jersey.

Tussles over the program, which was created under the Trump administration, foreshadow issues that could arise if the Biden administration succeeds in passing sweeping immigration changes, such as those proposed in the Build Back Better Act.

From the outset, government estimates and independent estimates of how many people could benefit have diverged. The Centers for Migration Studies in New York estimates that 10,000 Liberians living in the U.S. could be eligible, based on Census Bureau estimates of the number of Liberians who do not already have green cards. USCIS estimates the number is only about a third of that, based on the number of people from the country who previously applied for other programs. So far, 3,529 people have applied, and 951 have been approved, according to USCIS data.

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Apart from that disagreement, Palmer said the current timeline is still unnecessarily rushed.

“The Liberian community needs more time to put together strong initial applications; to supplement previously submitted applications with new, stronger evidence; to secure legal representation; to secure documentation; and to secure the funds needed to apply for themselves and their families,” she said. Groups working with the Liberian community are calling on Congress to extend the application window, or get rid of it all together.

U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, of Minnesota, said supporters in Congress are working “diligently” to try to get the program changed by the end of the year.

A USCIS spokesperson pushed back on the need for an extension, saying the program was already extended once, from December 2020 to December 2021. But that change, and the change in administration, did not result in a wave of new applications. Around 95% of those who applied did so in 2020, according to USCIS.

A way out of precarious immigration status

In many cases, Liberians fleeing civil war at home or coming to join family and have a better life in the United States have been allowed to stay and work in this country for decades. Programs such as Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure meant protection from deportation, but also meant living with the possibility of losing status and work authorization in the future.

The Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act offers a way out of that precarity, if applicants can meet the criteria and provide documentation. But tracking down or getting documents issued by a foreign government can be a challenge, especially during a pandemic, said Voffee Jabateh, CEO of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, or ACANA. Based in West Philadelphia, the nonprofit has helped dozens of people apply for green cards.

For example, one man who called ACANA from Florida asking for help has been in the United States for four decades but does not have some of the required documents, such as a copy of his birth certificate, said Jabateh. Hunting down those documents means finding someone in Liberia who can help. And then, waiting.

Until those documents arrive, “he would not be able to apply, even though he’s qualified,” said Jabateh, who said he had many clients in similar situations.

“I have a young man who has been waiting for a correct birth certificate out of Liberia … and yet they’re saying we don’t have the paper to make the certificate,” said Pam Roberts, Citizenship and Family Unification Program Staff Attorney at HIAS Pennsylvania, who has been helping Liberians apply.

At the end of October, USCIS tweaked the program requirements to allow people who had trouble obtaining some documents from abroad, like an unexpired Liberian passport, to instead submit proof that they had tried.

Some people who have already applied and been denied could also miss out, said Roberts, if they miss the window to reapply with better materials.

Trusting the system, after years of fearing deportation, is another hurdle to overcome. “We believe there is a fair number of people out there who are just frightened,” she said.

The stakes are also high for anyone waiting. With Temporary Protected Status for Liberians set to end in June 2022, anyone currently in the U.S. on that program, and who does not get a green card through the act, could fall out of status or be forced to leave the country.

Gwendolyn Flowers, 51, lived in that limbo for more than 30 years, after coming to the United States as a teenager in 1987. Now a certified nursing assistant in Northeast Philadelphia, Flowers said that when the act passed, “I felt relief, I felt happy, I felt very good about this opportunity for me.”

But at the same time, she was hesitant. Flowers said she was not confident the program would help her, or if it would be a trap, “a way to find out your location, where you’re at, and to come pick you up.”

Gwendolyn Flowers. (Courtesy Gwendolyn Flowers)

That fear, combined with long processing times, is one reason advocates are calling for the deadline to be suspended. Until more green cards are issued, they argue, some people will not trust the program really works.

With help from ACANA, Flowers did apply in early 2020, and had an interview with USCIS in November 2020. Ten months later, she said, she received her green card.

“I couldn’t believe it at first,” Flowers said. All at once, a ceiling that had been hanging over her for decades lifted. Now, she said, “I can freely work, in any area I wish to. I can travel and do investments out of the country, in the country. It’s just so much I can do.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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