For decades, Liberian refugees were allowed to live and work in the U.S. following the Liberian Civil War of the 1990s. President Donald Trump announced the end of that policy in March, giving protected Liberians just one year to prepare for deportation.
Liberians living in Southern New England are confused and disappointed. The Whitehouse says the Liberian policy is no longer necessary, because country is stable after years of war and the 2014 Ebola outbreak. But local Liberians disagree.
“I don’t think Liberia is prepared,” said Rev. Matthew Kai, head of the largely Liberian West Side Tabernacle Church in Providence. Kai grew up in Liberia, and said the country, devastated by war, will not be ready a year from now to handle an influx of new residents.
“This is not enough time, except if America is willing to infuse a huge amount of money into that system,” said Kai. “And even if with that they’re going to have to go there and do the work.”
Additionally, there has been confusion over the announcement. Kai said some Liberians protected under the program were elated when they heard they could stay for another year. That year is a grace period as the program phases out.
“This is not an extension, it’s just a delay of the deportation for one year,” said Kai. “So they were celebrating. So now we have this task to go and explain to our people that this is not an extension.”
There was little confusion over the announcement at Mahawa’s African Grocery on the west side of Providence.
Owner Mahawa Myers left Liberia as a teenager, joining an estimated 15,000 Liberians and their families living in Rhode Island. Her store is one of many shops, restaurants and churches that cater to the local African community.
Myers and other Liberians said they feel they’re being punished over concerns that immigrants are taking American jobs. Before she owned her store, Myers said she worked in healthcare, taking care of people with disabilities.
“I worked for the state of Massachusetts for 15 years,” said Myers. “Then I decided I wanted to work for myself. So you can’t tell me that it was somebody else’s job that I took from them.”
Myers is a U.S. citizen, so she will not face deportation. But she’s worried about family members who were protected under the program, some of whom came to this country as children and will be returning to a country they barely know.
“Imagine if someone like that had to go back home to Liberia,” said Myers. “It’s going to be very terrible for them.”
The policy that protected Liberian refugees in the U.S. is called Deferred Enforced Deportation, or D.E.D. In some cases, Myers said parents will have to decide whether to bring their American-born children back with them.
“So what happens? So they’re not going to enjoy the American dream? They’re not going to be part of the American life because their mother’s been shipped out of here?”
In Johnston, Pastor Chris Abhulime leads King’s Tabernacle Church. His congregation is made up mostly of African immigrants, including Liberians. He said the decision to end protection for Liberian refugees sends a message that immigrants are unwelcome in this country.
“When we lose people from other cultures, other countries, we’ll be losing that segment of society and losing their perspective on issues that affect all of us,” said Abuhlime.
Under President Trump, similar protections have been revoked for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, the Sudan, and Nicaragua. Abuhlime says fear is spreading in his congregation, as many immigrant groups now worry about who could be sent away next.