Refugee program offers Liberian immigrants a pathway to citizenship, but it’s floundering

Refugee program offers Liberian immigrants a pathway to citizenship, but it’s floundering

This story was originally published at Prism.

During his presidency, Donald Trump targeted some of the most vulnerable immigrant communities in the United States—including populations that were granted temporary protected status by the federal government because they came from countries afflicted by natural disasters, war, and other dangerous conditions. This included Liberians.

Since 1990, each administration provided temporary relief and protection for Liberians, through policies like Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) after determining it was unsafe to force Liberians to return to a country marked by a 14-year civil warpolitical instability, and a deadly Ebola epidemic. When Trump determined protections for Liberians were no longer warranted, it forced Congress to act. In 2019—after years of advocacy efforts from Liberian activists and leaders—Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which included a provision for Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness (LRIF). The program provides Liberian nationals who have lived in the U.S. for many years the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status, receive a green card, and become naturalized U.S. citizens.

LRIF is one of the only pathways to citizenship passed through Congress in decades⁠, and it specifically benefits thousands of Black immigrants in the U.S. But the program is currently floundering.

Congress implemented the arbitrary deadline of Dec. 20, 2021, for LRIF applications to be filed, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is currently experiencing a historic backlog that has left thousands of immigrants in limbo⁠—including those who have applied for LRIF. There are nearly 10,000 LRIF-eligible Liberians living in the U.S., but less than 4,000 have applied for the program since it passed in 2019. Most of those applications remain pending.

The USCIS backlog, the upcoming deadline, and a lack of community outreach led to the formation of the LRIF Strategy Group. The group, co-led by the organizations UndocuBlack and African Communities Together, are advocating for the proper implementation of the program. Attorney Breanne Palmer, UndocuBlack’s first policy and community advocacy counsel and its interim policy and advocacy director, and law student, UndocuBlack member, and LRIF recipient Delali Dagadu, recently spoke to Prism about the federal government’s failures surrounding the implementation of LRIF and what this may signal about potential roadblocks for other immigration benefits. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Tina Vasquez: Before we dive into specifics about LRIF, we should note that Liberians have a unique relationship with the U.S. What do you want people to know about this history?

Delali Dagadu: Liberians have long called the United States home, and considered themselves American due to our historical connection. Liberia is known as “little America” among some West Africans because Liberia was founded and settled by freeborn and formerly enslaved Americans in the early 1800s. We still have family ties from the early days when those of us returning to Liberia were known as Americo-Liberians. For many of us, we have called the U.S. home since the start of the Liberian civil war in 1989, which only ended in 2003. In a way, the Liberian civil war brought us back home and LRIF gives us the ability to make it our permanent home.

Vasquez: It’s clear that organizations like UndocuBlack are doing a lot of outreach, but one of the criticisms advocates have is how dismal the federal government has been at LRIF outreach—and advocates have expressed concerns about whether government agencies are even capable of doing culturally competent outreach. What could this look like in practice?

Breanne Palmer: The Biden administration must understand that our immigrant communities are still processing the traumatic onslaught of the last administration. Many people could not believe LRIF was real, given that it passed under the last, explicitly anti-immigrant administration. There is deep-seated distrust in immigration agencies, and many people are afraid of surfacing to these agencies. They fear that reaching out for this benefit will put them on DHS’s radar and in danger of deportation and separation from their families. These are difficult traumas to heal, and the Biden administration and its agencies must dedicate time and resources to repairing these relationships. People’s fears and concerns must be validated, and the Biden administration cannot rest on its laurels—people need to see good-faith effort from the administration to even consider trusting these systems and processes again. That looks like removing overly burdensome requirements and issuing clear—not confusing—guidance to applicants.

Vasquez: Despite the work advocates are doing on the ground, LRIF is at risk of failure, mostly because of what’s going on with USCIS. How is the agency creating insurmountable hurdles?

Palmer: USCIS has a backlog because of the last administration’s mismanagement and the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic on in-office work. USCIS is currently facing a backlog of millions of applications, including those for LRIF. Right now, LRIF applicants are waiting approximately 12 months to hear from USCIS about their applications—whether they are being approved, denied, or asked for more evidence.

LRIF applicants are also being asked to attend mandatory, in-person interviews to verify their identities and eligibility. Both of those things are accomplished through the paper application, and we are concerned that in-person interviews pose health risks for both USCIS officers and applicants given the ongoing pandemic and viral variants. This adds an additional hurdle to clear in the process, and it is not one mandated by Congress.

Applying for LRIF, like many other immigration benefits, is also incredibly expensive. For most adult applicants, applying for LRIF costs at least $1,225-$1,140 for the Form I-485 and $85 for biometrics. If someone is also applying for a work permit through LRIF, they must pay $410. Not to mention additional fees for juvenile applicants and other family members who may be eligible for LRIF. This is a huge financial burden. USCIS offers fee waivers for folks with financial hardship, but those are not guaranteed.

Vasquez: Delali, in a piece you wrote for Blavity, you discussed your journey obtaining a green card through the LRIF program after years of instability. What do you want people to know about the uncertainty that temporary immigration statuses cause?

Dagadu: To have a temporary immigration status is to be in limbo. In other words: You don’t belong, you are only here at the mercy of the time clock on which your status was granted. It is depressing, hard, and humiliating. If I didn’t have great friends and support around me, I would have easily given up. A lack of permanent status can easily break your spirit if you do not have a strong foundation and support around you. Living under the shadow of uncertainty and not knowing whether one will be deported today or tomorrow is unnerving. Each day is crippling when all you can think about is whether today is the day you will be sent back to a country you left when you were a child. Being forced to go back to a country that is still trying to mend the scar of a 14-year civil war can be traumatizing, especially for those who fled due to persecution. This is why LRIF is so important; it gives us dignity and peace of mind to feel safe.

Vasquez: As Breanne mentioned earlier, there are many legitimate reasons why Liberians in the U.S. may be fearful of applying for the program, but LRIF grants them the ability to become lawful permanent residents, receive a green card, and immediately naturalize. Delali, as someone who has gone through this process, what do you want them to know?

Dagadu: I want them to know that without LRIF, their ability to work is not guaranteed or it can be interrupted. It is extremely stressful to be waiting for your work authorization every year, even with stable work—and it can feel embarrassing because everyone in human resources knows your business. You’re put in a position where you have to explain your status to people who don’t know you, and when the work authorization card is delayed every year, you have to explain it all over again. LRIF allows us to work without a time clock on our employment.

Without LRIF, you can’t leave the U.S. and return. The weight of my immigration status really hit me when my father passed away in 2016. I couldn’t go visit him when he was ill, and I was unable to attend his funeral. I sought permission to leave the U.S. and asked to be granted reentry, but I was denied. This alone almost broke me. I loved my father dearly, but I chose to stay because my father wanted me to have all opportunities in the U.S. So, LRIF also gives us the freedom to move about freely without fear of being denied re-entry when we leave.

When it comes to education, without LRIF we cannot access federal financial aid. When I was applying for law school, I could not apply as an international student because I did not have the financial support. I was afraid my law school would question me about my nonimmigrant status and ask me to show proof of immigration status, which I had, but it was not permanent. Fortunately, I was able to explain my immigration situation to an admission officer and was granted admission without applying for an F-1 student visa.

However, due to my temporary/limbo status, I was not eligible for federal financial aid. In addition, I could not apply for private student loans because I needed to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. So, I worked and paid for my law school out-of-pocket. There are only a few scholarships that do not require you to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

Vasquez: What happens to Liberians in the U.S. who do not know this program exists and miss the deadline to apply? Can they maintain a temporary status in the U.S.? What kind of uncertainty will they navigate? Are they subject to deportation?

Palmer: We are extremely concerned about the people LRIF could leave behind. LRIF is available to Liberians regardless of their immigration status—as long as they meet the program’s eligibility requirements. LRIF applicants run the gamut of folks with no status at all, to people who are longtime recipients of TPS or DED. In fact, one of President Biden’s first executive orders extended DED for Liberia and work authorization until June 2022 specifically to give Liberians with DED more time to apply for LRIF. Unfortunately, the same executive order includes a provision that says if a LRIF applicant has DED status, applies for LRIF, and is denied, they will lose their DED status and their work authorization. That is devastating and unnecessarily punitive. We are working with advocates to correct this injustice with the White House.

We are also concerned about USCIS’s processing delays. Many people who have submitted their LRIF applications have been waiting on a result for a year or more. The deadline to apply for LRIF is Dec. 20, 2021. USCIS will keep processing already-submitted applications after the deadline, but if USCIS has questions about an application, needs more evidence from an applicant, or intends to deny an application, people are left without any ability to reapply or correct their applications. People will be locked out of an opportunity due to no fault of their own, but instead due to USCIS’ backlogs.  

Additionally, given USCIS’s processing delays and with DED for Liberia expiring in June of 2022, we worry that LRIF applicants with DED may not get a result until after their status and work permit expire⁠—leaving them without legal status, without an ability to make money, and without an ability to fix their applications or reapply. We are heading towards a multi-layered disaster for so many people unless USCIS kicks things into high gear and prioritizes LRIF.

Vasquez: What can USCIS do immediately to ensure that community members are able to benefit from LRIF? 

Palmer: We need USCIS to prioritize LRIF as one of the few programs it administers with a firm deadline. What does prioritization look like? USCIS has, after feedback from our communities, increased the number of engagements locally and nationally to explain LRIF and its requirements. We know a number of USCIS’ community relations officers have been doing excellent work consistently engaging with Liberian organizations. But we need the full power of USCIS behind this effort.

We also need USCIS to clarify the application requirements even further. Through our advocacy efforts, we have achieved some clarification of confusing and burdensome documentation requirements, but even more clarity is needed especially as we approach the application deadline. We need USCIS to confirm what applicants should do with primary or secondary evidence of their Liberian nationality (which is a requirement), what applicants should do if they can’t obtain a birth certificate, and what is expected of applicants when it comes to explaining why documents may be missing or unavailable. Remember, many Liberians fled multiple civil wars. In those dangerous, terrifying scenarios, keeping perfect documentation is low on the priority list. The spirit of LRIF is to provide a pathway to citizenship for these long-term residents of the U.S., many of whom fled violence, war, and public health crises. USCIS must keep that spirit in mind when crafting requirements.

Vasquez: UndocuBlack and other organizations are advocating for Congress to remove the December deadline for LRIF, which has become a point of contention. What happens if Congress does not remove the deadline?

Palmer: Thousands of Liberians will miss out on this life-changing opportunity due to an arbitrary administrative choice. This accessible pathway to citizenship will be closed, and that will leave many Liberians without any legal status in continued danger of exploitation and deportation.

Vasquez: People were hopeful that the Biden administration would be more proactive not just in reversing Trump-era policies, but in creating change for immigrant communities. There has already been a lot of disappointment, but LRIF is a real opportunity for Liberian immigrants. What is the most important thing you want people to understand about LRIF and how it’s being rolled out, or what do you want Liberians to know about applying for this benefit?  

Palmer: LRIF is historic in its own right and remains a major win for Black immigrants. LRIF is also a test case for the enormous immigration battle we are waging right now—trying to get a pathway to citizenship for millions of people included in the Congressional reconciliation process. Everyone who cares about immigration should be watching the fate of LRIF, especially how the administration implements the program and which roadblocks are erected to lock people out of benefits. We will surely see those tactics again, should we win the reconciliation battle for our communities. By paying attention to how the Biden administration handles (or mishandles) LRIF, we as advocates can be ready to preempt any sneak attacks on the hard-won pathway to citizenship.

Dagadu: LRIF is the relief we have prayed and waited for, it’s our pathway to freedom and dignity. I understand the U.S. immigration system is a maze, even lawyers sometimes have a hard time understanding or navigating it, but with determination and support from organizations such as UndocuBlack, you will get through. I also understand that LRIF sounds like it’s too good to be true. LRIF is no myth. I and many others, who have been granted permanent status under LRIF, are proof that LRIF is real and has been since 2019. But come Dec. 20, 2021, it may be history.

If I can do it, I believe with the right support, anyone can go through and do it.

A lot of immigrants are stuck because they do not have anyone advocating on their behalf, so getting involved in UndocuBlack makes a huge difference.

UndocuBlack has created a free resource hub for all things LRIF, including eligibility information, testimonials from LRIF recipients, FAQs, advice for applicants, and a directory for free legal and financial assistance. You can check it out here.

Tina Vásquez is a contributing writer at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers’ rights, and immigration.

Prism is a BIPOC-led non-profit news outlet that centers the people, places, and issues currently underreported by national media. We’re committed to producing the kind of journalism that treats Black, Indigenous, and people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other invisibilized groups as the experts on our own lived experiences, our resilience, and our fights for justice. Sign up for our email list to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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