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Liberians grapple with potential loss of U.S. legal status

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Liberians grapple with potential loss of U.S. legal status
Liberian immigrant Harrietta Bettie visits her family gravesite at Mound Cemetery, which dates to 1862 but now also makes room for the graves of African and Asian immigrants, in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, U.S., March 23, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst   -   Copyright  JONATHAN ERNST(Reuters)
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By Jonathan Ernst

BROOKLYNPARK, Minn. (Reuters) – As snow blanketed African markets, churches and graves in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, in February, members of the Liberian community were praying fervently that this would not be their last winter in the United States.

A form of immigration status known as Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) – which had protected the migrants from deportation and allowed them to work legally – was due to expire in March, meaning they would have had to leave the country voluntarily or be deported.

It was all part of the effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to widen its crackdown on legal and illegal immigration to the United States.

Days before the March deadline, Trump granted Liberians a reprieve to last through March 30, 2020. Though relieved, community members recognised that the clock was simply reset for the thousands of Liberians who fled civil war and instability in their home country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Marie Zar, 52, who has been in the United States for nearly two decades, holds DED status. Like many Liberians in Minnesota, she works in the healthcare industry. She’s a nurse’s assistant, who also picks up shifts at the local hospital as an interpreter for Liberian patients.

The money she makes supports nearly two dozen family members in Liberia. She said her family’s lives will be upended if her DED status ends.

“My nieces are going to school from the money I make here,” Zar said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re not sure what’s going to happen to us.”

Famatta Zeon, 43, a local Liberian organizer with DED status, had worked furiously throughout winter to lobby the government and raise awareness of her community’s plight.

“There are some families who have been here 23, 25 years on this status,” she said. “We’ve worked here, we’ve paid our taxes, we have homes here. We don’t want our children to be put in the system here. We have tried our honest best to work here and not be dependent on the system.”

But Zeon lamented: “He’s the only one that can put that gavel down,” referring to President Donald Trump. “Give us … a clear pathway to citizenship. We’re taxpayers, we’re not problems.”

See related photo essay here:

(Reporting by Jonathan Ernst in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota; additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; editing by Diane Craft)

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