WASHINGTON — Teanke Tarwai fled Liberia’s second civil war in the late 1990s and has lived in the Twin Cities metro area of Minnesota ever since, raising three children with her husband. But she — and nearly 4,000 other Liberian immigrants — could soon face a hard choice: leave before the end of the month or face the threat of deportation.
That's why she's been knocking on doors in D.C.
“Going back to Liberia is like going back to the civil war,” Tarwai, 51, said. “I’m not going to go back because that is not my home. Minnesota is home.”
Tarwai, a licensed practical nurse, and her husband have been able to live and work in the U.S. for nearly 20 years through two humanitarian programs, first under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and later, Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). They both offer temporary legal status to nationals from countries in conflict or humanitarian crisis. Since 1991, both Republican and Democrat administrations have repeatedly renewed those temporary protections for Liberians.
That changed last March when Trump announced Deferred Enforced Departure would end in a year. If the estimated 4,000 Liberians protected under that program stay in the U.S. past March 31, they’ll become undocumented and risk deportation.
But Tarwai is determined to stay: She's rallied near the White House and visited congressional offices to plea for permanent status in the U.S for herself and her children. Tarwai’s two eldest children are also on Deferred Enforced Departure, while her 16-year-old daughter is a U.S. citizen.
If Trump doesn’t extend the program, however, Tarwai intends to go to a third country, like Canada, rather than moving to Liberia, where the infrastructure and health care system is still recovering from past civil wars and the recent Ebola crisis.
“If I'm going to go back to Liberia, I don't have a place to stay, I won't have a job,” she said. “After I've worked all these years, I'm going to leave everything here to go be a displaced person?”
Ending the program keeping Tarwai and other Liberian immigrants in the country is just one way Trump is cracking down on legal immigration.
His administration has granted fewer visas, slashed refugee quotas, and cut temporary protections for non-citizens. Arguing that conditions in their homelands have improved, Trump is also winding down Temporary Protected Status, which protects around 300,000 immigrants from ten countries. The decision was met with protests and lawsuits last year, one of which temporarily prevents the Department of Homeland Security from taking action against nationals from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador in the U.S. under the program.
On March 8, a group of Deferred Enforced Departure recipients and immigrant advocacy organizations, Undocublack and African Communities Together, filed a joint lawsuit accusing the Trump administration of discrimination. The complaint lays out several examples — including Trump reportedly calling Haiti, El Salvador and all of Africa as “shithole countries” — in an attempt to show that the president harbors “racial animus against immigrants of color.”
Unless Trump issues an executive order backtracking on Deferred Enforced Departure, the only other option for people like Tarwai is pending legislation called the Dream and Promise Act. The bill, introduced by House Democrats, would provide a pathway to citizenship for several recipients of temporary legal status, but a vote hasn’t been scheduled yet.
In the meantime, Tarwai has already received several notices from her hospital employer letting her know she won’t be scheduled for work past March 31. “I’m counting the days, the hours, the minutes. It's kind of scary,” she said.