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In late August — over halfway through the one-year application window for a little-known program allowing thousands of Liberian immigrants to get green cards — a group of Minnesota lawyers held a webinar to share updates on their cases. The takeaway: No one was sure what evidence the U.S. government was accepting to prove that an applicant was actually Liberian.
Birth certificates, which the federal government had accepted from these immigrants when they had applied for temporary legal status under past presidents, were now deemed insufficient. So were expired Liberian passports — even though they were being offered as proof of nationality, which doesn’t expire.
Federal guidance on the legalization program, which had come out in April (four months after Congress quietly enacted the program as part of a December 2019 defense authorization bill) said that acceptable evidence of nationality included unexpired Liberian passports or naturalization certificates, but “was not limited to” them. But no one on the call had heard of any other form of ID actually getting accepted.
The upshot, the presenters on the call said, was that people who wanted to get their applications in before the window closed on Dec. 20 would need new passports from a country they hadn’t seen in years. In the middle of a pandemic. From a Liberian consulate open only a few days a week and already overwhelmed with passport requests. And including a fingerprint scan, which would require them to make a risky trip to New York or Washington. (In the fall, the Liberian consulate in Minneapolis also got a biometrics unit, and started remaining open five days a week.)
When the Liberian legalization program was enacted, it was an unexpected success for immigrants under the Trump administration. It was the first legalization bill to pass Congress since 2000, and was signed into law by a president famously hawkish on immigrants in general and African immigrants in particular. It was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for as many as 10,000 Liberian immigrants, many of whom have been in the U.S. for decades.
But it’s become a victim of two colliding trends: the COVID-19 pandemic (and the economic crisis it engendered), and severely degraded functioning at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for legal immigration. It’s shined a light on the level of dysfunction at USCIS — and raised questions about how easy it will be for President-elect Joe Biden to fix the agency.
“There have been obstacles and roadblocks erected every single step of the way,” Patrice Lawrence of The UndocuBlack Network told ProPublica. Jill Marie Bussey of the Catholic immigration-advocacy organization CLINIC told ProPublica that the Liberian program has been “severely hamstrung.”
Members of Congress who fought to create the program are now urging Congress to extend it for another year. But lawyers aren’t betting on that, and are already turning away would-be applicants.
As the application window closes, legal providers and community advocates are concerned that thousands of eligible people will miss their chance.
The Liberian legalization program seemed at first a rare victory for immigration advocates in the Trump administration. The president had threatened to strip deportation protections that Liberians in the U.S. had (in various forms) since 1991 — instead, he had signed a bill allowing them to swap those temporary protections for permanent legal status and accelerated citizenship. Members of Congress from Rhode Island and Minnesota (which both have sizable Liberian populations) had won enough support not only to slip the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness program into a must-pass defense bill, but also to keep its inclusion quiet until hours before the final votes — avoiding a backlash from immigration hawks.
No one was sure exactly how many Liberians were eligible for green cards. A June analysis by the pro-immigration think tank the Center for Migration Studies estimated that 10,000 Liberians were eligible; congressional offices think it’s closer to 5,000.
The federal government estimated that 2,200 to 4,000 Liberians held temporary status when the bill was passed (some of the Liberian immigrants who’d applied for temporary protection had since become eligible for permanent status by other paths). But even immigrants who’d let their temporary protections lapse would be covered, as long as they could show they were Liberian and had been in the U.S. continuously since 2014. By the end of March — even before USCIS had updated its staff policy manual with instructions on evaluating applications — over 1,000 Liberians had applied.
But by that point, COVID-19 had hit, and everything was going sideways.
Legal-services organizations had to scrap outreach efforts, which tended to draw a crowd. “Working with the Liberian community, the way we do things is we get together in a big room, and it’s kind of a party,” Michele Garnett McKenzie of the Twin Cities-based nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights told ProPublica. With COVID concerns, lawyers had to hope that Liberian immigrants would find out about the legalization program online — not a sure bet, given that many were older, working-class immigrants who were more likely to have flip phones than iPhones. “There’s a digital divide that people need to recognize,” said Allen Orr, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, “because the internet ain’t free and the library ain’t open.”
Citizenship and Immigration Services, for its part, did negligible public outreach. Several lawyers pointed out to ProPublica that USCIS already had thousands of home addresses of eligible immigrants from their latest filings for temporary status, and could have sent them letters informing them of the new program; it did not. A USCIS spokesperson told ProPublica that “USCIS issued three national stakeholder messages or web alerts” on the program, shared the message with local networks and participated in events sponsored by local stakeholders.
The pandemic forced slowdowns at USCIS, as well. Most offices around the country were closed for in-person interviews for several months over the spring and summer. The slowdown (coupled with a series of executive orders slashing legal immigration to the U.S., citing the need for economic recovery) caused a $1 billion budget agency shortfall; it narrowly avoided the prospect of furloughing 75 percent of its staff in fall by slashing contractor numbers.
But while the agency made a few accommodations for applicants — like giving them more time to gather supplemental evidence — lawyers and congressional staff monitoring implementation were surprised by how many hoops immigrants were being asked to jump through. Everyone was asked for in-person interviews, creating additional delays since offices were closed. And many were getting requests for more evidence, mostly because of the passport issue.
Some immigrants chose to fly to New York or Washington to apply for a new biometric passport, which would then be shipped to Liberia for processing. Even once the St. Paul consulate started offering passport services, immigrants from elsewhere in the Midwest still had to make a risky trip. The Liberian government was overwhelmed by demand; at the August legal seminar, a consular official stressed that applicants would need to call the consulate if their evidence deadline was approaching, so they could be moved to the front of the line. Some applicants just submitted proof that they had applied for a passport online, hoping USCIS would take it in good faith.
Congressional staff told ProPublica that in the fall, USCIS assured them that they would also accept expired passports as proof of nationality. However, no public announcement was made, and lawyers are still telling their clients they need current passports. Asked what evidence USCIS was accepting, the USCIS spokesperson told ProPublica that “The USCIS Policy Manual and the Form I-485 Special Instructions for Liberian Refugee Immigrant Fairness Applicants include examples of evidence that LRIF applicants must provide. If an applicant is unable to submit the required primary evidence, the applicant may provide secondary evidence instead and explain why the primary evidence is unavailable. USCIS will evaluate if the evidence submitted is sufficient.”
In the fall, approvals started trickling in — relatively quickly for green-card applications under Trump (for the last three years, they’ve taken an average of 11 months). That spurred a new wave of interest: when Twin Cities lawyer Paschal Nwokocha posted on Facebook that a client had been approved, he got new inquiries from people “because they have heard this is actually real.” By that point, the deadline was nearing.
According to the Congressional Research Service, about 2,500 Liberians had applied for green cards as of Oct. 12 — which could represent anywhere from the entire population to 25 percent of it. Observers believe that even more applications have been filed in the ensuing weeks. “Generally with time-limited immigration benefits,” Charles Kamasaki of the Latino advocacy group UnidosUS told ProPublica, “there’s a U-shaped curve” of applications.
But the closer to the deadline, the more likely it is that an application — or a lot of applications — mailed before Dec. 20 will be rejected too late to fix any problems.
Lawyers have already been urging clients, even those of limited means, to save time by paying the $1,000 application fee even if they were eligible for a fee waiver. (Nwokocha helped raise money for one of his clients, a woman with a history of homelessness, rather than risk delay.) But they worry that some applications could be rejected for, for example, failing to comply with a new policy requiring immigrants to fill in every blank on an application, even if the questions do not apply to them. A blank space can trigger rejection.
Worse, they worry, some applications will be submitted on time and rejected as late.
Traditionally, USCIS has considered a deadline to be the last day an application can be postmarked to get accepted. For the Liberian program, though, it’s saying that applications must be received by the 20th — the Sunday before Christmas, in a year when the Postal Service has been dealing with slowdowns of its own.
And those whose applications arrive too late — or are rejected for easily fixed technical reasons — won’t find out for several weeks. It generally takes as long as 30 days after submitting an application to get back a receipt. This fall, several lawyers reported, it’s taken even longer — with checks going uncashed for six weeks or more.
The only thing that would put Liberians, lawyers, and congressional staff at ease would be a deadline extension — ideally, advocates say, to December 2021. Some members of Congress are working to add an extension to the end-of-year omnibus spending bill. If they don’t succeed, it will be up to the incoming Biden administration to try to reopen program applications — and offer temporary protections in the meantime.
But few believe an extension on its own will be enough. It won’t address the cost barriers to getting a new passport and paying the hefty $1,000 application fee (amid an unemployment crisis), nor will it help people find out about the program to begin with.
Advocates are looking to a Biden administration to address those concerns. After all, they point out, if Biden is urging Congress to pass a much broader legalization bill — or if he is planning steps to have USCIS grant executive protections under measures like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — this is a proof of concept.
“This is a test case,” said Bussey of the advocacy group CLINIC, “for how a legalization program could go.”