Legal status for thousands of Liberians in US hangs on court decision

The World
A group of people holding signs gather in front of a courthouse building

Yatta Kiazolu stood outside the federal courthouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, clutching a loudspeaker as she and a group of Liberian immigrants chanted: 

“What do we want?” 


“When do we want it?” 


“Now” is essential to Kiazolu and many other Liberians in the US. 

As of March 31, 2020, some 4,000 Liberians, most of whom have been living legally in the United States for decades, will lose their legal status due to the Trump administration’s termination of a program that granted them temporary reprieves from deportation. 

Most arrived in the US before or during Liberia’s civil wars, which spanned roughly 1989 to 2003 and killed nearly 250,000 people. The program is called Deferred Enforced Departure, or DED. 

Kiazolu is a DED holder and 28-year-old PhD candidate studying history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Born in Botswana to Liberian parents, she came to the US at age 6. 

“The program being terminated means I would have to self-deport to a country I’ve never lived in.”

Yatta Kiazolu, DED holder and plaintiff

“Terminating the program has meant great uncertainty,” Kiazolu said. “I’m supposed to be filing my dissertation, and interruptions over the past two years because of the termination has meant I can’t plan a certain future. ...The program being terminated means I would have to self-deport to a country I’ve never lived in.” 

On Wednesday, Kiazolu and other Liberians in her situation finally got their day in court. 

Their lawyers argued that US President Donald Trump’s decision to end the program was rooted in racism and is therefore unconstitutional. A lawyer for the US government countered that the DED program exists at the president’s discretion and that humanitarian circumstances in Liberia have improved to the point where DED protections are no longer necessary.

A woman holds a sign that reads, "Residency now for Liberian DED holders."

Yatta Kiazolu, a 28-year-old Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, said she could face deportation in March due to the Trump administration's termination of a legal program that allows her and other Liberians to stay in the US. Kiazolu joined other DED holders at a court hearing in Worcester, Massachusetts, Oct. 9, 2019. 


Tania Karas/The World

More than 70 Liberian DED holders and their allies from across the US packed US District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman’s courtroom to hear oral arguments that would determine their fate. It was the first hearing in the only case filed on behalf of Liberian DED holders in the US, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based nonprofit that filed the case. The plaintiffs were a group of 15 Liberians, including Kiazolu, and community groups such as African Communities Together and the UndocuBlack Network

During Wednesday’s hearing, Hillman asked tough questions of both the plaintiffs and defense. 

Hillman asked Joshua Kolsky, the Department of Justice lawyer, whether the court could order any legal remedy if it “hypothetically” agreed with the plaintiffs’ assertion that Trump’s decision was based on racial animus. 

Kolsky replied there was nothing the court could do, as the power to extend or terminate the program lays solely within the government’s executive branch.  

“The president has wide discretion on making decisions of national security,” Kolsky said, adding that only Congress has the power to enable the Liberians to stay permanently — by passing legislation. 

Related: Liberia was founded by people enslaved in the US. Advocates say the US should not end an immigration program for them.

Kolsky also pointed to indicators that the situation in Liberia had improved. The United Nations ended its mission in Liberia in March 2018, Kolsky said, citing remarks by the UN Secretary-General that Liberia had made “remarkable peace gains” over the past 14 years. 

The plaintiffs’ attorneys disagreed, citing ongoing political instability as well as the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. They also pointed to numerous vulgar comments the president has made on African countries and immigrants generally as evidence Trump did not end the program on foreign policy or national security grounds. 

Still, the judge questioned what form of judicial relief he could provide. 

“This is one of those instances where I have a lot of authority but not power. And in this instance, the power is with the executive.”

US District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman

“This is one of those instances where I have a lot of authority but not power,” Hillman told Sozi Pedro Tulante, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “And in this instance, the power is with the executive.” 

The parties now await a decision from Hillman. 

After the hearing, the crowd gathered outside the courthouse.  

“You’re going to be asking, ‘What’s the timing?’ And don’t know,” Tulante told them. “But we do know that the judge knows we have a ticking clock. We have a hard deadline that we need relief by.”

Trump’s decision to end DED for Liberians is part of a broad effort to cancel longstanding programs that allow groups of immigrants to temporarily reside in the US — such as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. In the past, such programs have received broad bipartisan support. Like TPS and DACA, DED offers no pathway to citizenship, only periodic extensions by the president of about 18 months at a time.

Both TPS and DACA have been kept alive by court orders, but so far there has not been a ruling on DED. This past March, the Trump administration extended DED one more year but has indicated it will not do so again. 

Related: Almost undocumented, Liberians in US get 11th hour reprieve

The Department of Justice declined to comment for this story. 

Trump’s decision to end DED for Liberians will affect their children, too. At least 4,000 US citizen children nationwide have a Liberian parent with DED status, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights. This means the parents find themselves in a difficult position: They can remain in the United States without legal papers, or go back to Liberia without their children. 

Earlier this year, attorneys general from 10 states across the country filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs and their children, saying the end of DED would hurt local communities and families.

“This would deprive the amici states’ economies and communities of positive contributions from coworkers and neighbors who have lived here for decades,” they wrote. “Our health care industries in particular would suffer, as many Liberians work in that field.”

For many Liberians, the program is a lifeline. Many support family back home in Liberia with their US incomes and have not been able to visit Liberia in all their years of living in the US.

And after two decades in the US, Liberia is no longer home, said Othello Dennis, a social worker and cofounder of Angels-Net Foundation, a nonprofit in Worcester that helps new immigrants and refugees adjust to life in the United States. He has two young sons, both of them US citizens. 

If Dennis loses his legal status, he said, he would have to either bring his children with him to Liberia or leave them behind in Worcester. 

“We cannot go back. We have out roots here,” Dennis said. “For me, I’m a social worker, I’ve been a social worker for over 19 years. I serve the immigrant children, I serve the American children.” 

“Tell me,” he added, if we’re gone, “who is going to serve the immigrant community as we are doing now?” 

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