Roseline Sackor, 38, came to the United States in 2014 for a vacation. But when she arrived, the Ebola virus was flaring up in her home country of Liberia. Her two young children were with her, but her husband remained back home.
“I decided to stay and start my life over,” Sackor said. She lost a marriage in the process, but she gained opportunities in her new life.
Sackor works as a home health aide and now lives in Brooklyn Park with her two children: a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. She’s also going to school to become a certified nursing assistant.
For the last seven years, Sackor and her children have lived in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status. This category provides a work permit and stay of deportation for immigrants from designated countries facing armed conflict or environmental crisis. Amidst a new pandemic in August—this time, COVID-19—Sackor applied for a new program that would grant a green card to Liberians living in the U.S. since 2014, and, subsequently, a chance to immediately apply for citizenship. By November, Sackor and her two children received their green cards.
“I was happy, I was hopeful,” Sackor said. “That I could be living here and not looking over my shoulder. That I will have access to all the opportunity that is here.”
With an estimated 4,000 Liberians living in Brooklyn Park, Sackor added that many of her friends have been hesitant to apply to this new program. They’ve told her they don’t believe the program is real.
Minnesota is home to the largest Liberian population in the U.S. A Minnesota politician, Senator Tina Smith, helped write and advance the immigration option. But only 400 out of an estimated 30,000 Liberians in Minnesota applied last year.
So Sackor has been telling her friends who have relied on temporary protections for decades that a new law will put them on a path towards citizenship. And it’s, in fact, real. “I’m a living testament to that,” she said.
Trust issues with Trump?
Former president Donald Trump approved the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (LRIF) in January 2020, which granted most Liberians in the U.S. a pathway to citizenship. But the move surprised immigration lawyers and their Liberian clients. Some members of the Liberian community were so weary of anti-immigration actions from Trump that they didn’t apply at all.
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that pushed back to December 2021 the deadline to apply for a green card and citizenship under LRIF. His administration also extended Deferred Enforced Departure protections for Liberians living in the U.S. (another program that allows individuals from countries facing political turmoil or natural disaster to stay in the U.S.). The LRIF application, Biden said in a statement, had suffered “a slow launch, cumbersome procedures, and delays in adjudication.”
“It was very concerning to see such a low number of applications come in,” Senator Smith said in an interview with Sahan Journal. Smith cited the pandemic as one barrier. “But I wonder whether it also does have something to do with a lack of trust towards the Trump administration,” she added.
Spouses and children under 21 are also eligible. (Liberian nationals who have either been convicted of aggravated felonies or have engaged politically persecuted others in Liberia are ineligible for permanent residency under LRIF.) If approved, individuals can immediately apply for citizenship. For some Liberians, the offer seemed too good to be true.
There are about 10,000 Liberians eligible for the program living in the U.S., and only 2,000 people filed applications last year. But 200 applications were, in fact, accepted as of November, according to data obtained by Smith’s office from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency has sped up the process since November so the number of approvals could be higher, however they have not yet disclosed more recent data.
Legal service providers for immigrants in Minnesota have reported some approvals coming in. The immigrant resettlement agency International Institute of Minnesota, which has submitted a bulk of the applications coming out of the state, received nine approvals in November. Their 31 remaining applicants are waiting in line at different stages of the process.
“It is such a rare wonderful opportunity,” said Sackor’s attorney, Lenore Millibergity, who works at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. Out of 19 applications filed by the group, 10 have already been approved. “The Liberian community has gone through years of worrying about what’s happening in the home country, worried about what our government was going to do with them as they establish lives here,” Millibergity added.
Around 4,000 Liberians in the U.S. had depended on Deferred Enforced Departure protections, which date back about 30 years. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush granted Liberians temporary status when civil war broke out in their home country. Deferred deportation and temporary status were never meant to provide a permanent solution, yet thousands of Liberians would reapply yearly for those programs.
But they depended on the president at the time continuing to grant protections for a given year. Trump announced in early 2018 that he would end the Deferred Enforced Departure program for Liberians, setting an expiration date for March 2019. That would have left an estimated 3,600 Liberians in the U.S. without status.
“They live in Minnesota legally, they have been working and paying taxes, many of them work in the health care area so they are the folks that are taking care of our loved ones,” Smith said of the thousands of Liberians in Minnesota. “They have been in a state of limbo.”
But he actually ended up renewing Deferred Enforced Departure and signing LRIF into effect.
The application may appear complicated—and expensive
While the application process has been moving quickly for the few people who have applied, it requires documentation that can be difficult to find. Applicants have to prove that they have been living in the U.S. continuously since 2014, which means they need to compile documentation, such as rent receipts, for each month since then.
“The process to prove that you’ve been here in America, especially from 2014 to 2021, sounds impossible to track down,” Sackor said. But she added that with the help of Millibergity, it wasn’t as difficult as she had expected.
According to St. Paul immigration attorney Graham Ojala-Barbour, some applicants have had trouble obtaining an unexpired Liberian passport since they haven’t gone back for so long. That can add to the costs of applying for permanent residency. The application itself costs $1,225.
Ojala-Barbour has filed two applications so far. He said LRIF is unique in that Congress doesn’t typically act to protect people from a specific country. He called the law a “remover of obstacles,” but also noticed a few barriers that have made people hesitant.
“That’s a significant expense that some people might not be able to—or might not want to—pay, especially if they don’t trust what’s gonna happen,” Ojala-Barbour said of the $1,225 application charge.
One of his clients, Morris, who asked to be referred to by his middle name since his application has not yet been approved, is still waiting on his Liberian passport. Once he receives the passport, he can submit all the documents required in the application.
Morris came to the U.S. in 1981. Since then, he has had difficulty securing his immigration status and has depended on Temporary Protected Status—an annual application filing for the last 30 years.
“You want to go on a vacation to other countries and you can’t leave, because you’re afraid you’re not going to be allowed back in,” Morris said. “I want to see other parts of the world.”
He added he’s looking forward to becoming a U.S. citizen. The first place he’d like to visit is Paris, to visit his cousins. All he needs is his U.S. passport.