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Sen. Smith, Rep. Phillips join Liberian community in plea for extension of DED

Sen. Smith, Rep. Phillips join Liberian community in plea for extension of DED

Elected representatives and community members of Brooklyn Park and beyond came together to highlight a looming crisis for the country’s Liberian population at a March 10 press conference at Brooklyn Park City Hall.

The conference lasted just shy of a half hour and featured Sen. Tina Smith, Rep. Dean Phillips (MN-03), Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeffrey Lunde and community advocates.

The purpose of the event was to call attention to the March 31 expiration of the Deferred Enforced Departure program, on which many Liberians living in the United States depend on for legal status here.

The program, initiated by former President Bill Clinton, has been renewed periodically by all of the presidents since Clinton, including President Donald Trump. The press conference primarily called on Trump to do so again.

“We have a responsibility,” said Phillips. “The reason for this news conference today is to elevate an important issue – a human issue, and very much an economic issue – and that is to help this extraordinary community stay here, a place where families have been created, jobs created, businesses started, and people who care for members of our very own family who are here today.”

Smith described the circumstances that led to many Liberians seeking refuge in the United States in the first place.

“In the face of violence in Liberia, thousands of people came to the United States as refugees and asylum seekers,” said Smith. “These are individuals with amazing resilience and fortitude and courage, to uproot their lives to escape violence and an untenable situation and come here, where they were granted asylum.”

Smith called Liberians in Minnesota an integral part of the community, a sentiment that was echoed by others who took part in the conference.

“This is their home now,” said Smith. “Liberia is a country that they barely even know — and think about that from the perspective of their children: a country that they don’t know at all. And yet, unless the president takes action in the next few weeks, their legal status here in the United States will end.”

Smith and Phillips described tandem legislative efforts to both extend the protections of DED and, further, provide a path to citizenship for the immigrants in the program. Smith implored all those present – a crowd of approximately 50 – as well as anyone experiencing the conference at a distance or after the fact, to empathize with those faced with the possibility of the program expiring.

“I urge you to think about what this might mean,” said Smith. “Imagine that you didn’t know whether you would be able to even stay in hour home starting on April 1st. What would that feel like to you?

“That is the circumstance that the individuals standing behind me and thousands more across Minnesota are grappling with,” continued Smith. “We need to take action to stop that right now, and, as I said, the president could end this tomorrow through the executive authority that he has to do so.”

Brooklyn Park City Councilmember Wynfred Russell, a Liberian American himself, pointed out that the temporary extensions of the DED program do not mirror the reality of the Liberian community in the United States.

“They came through the process legally — they have not done anything contrary to why they were allowed to be here in the first place,” said Russell. “These people have paid their dues. They have paid taxes. After being here for 28 years, some of them 29 years, it’s not temporary anymore.”

Russell emphasized that the community at-large would feel the loss of its Liberian neighbors and urged action from all corners of the political spectrum.

“Please — this is not a Democratic issue,” said Russell. “This is not a Republican issue. This is a human issue. This is an economic issue. We need to come together.”

Louise Stevens, a Liberian immigrant and resident of Brooklyn Park, shared her experience, having come to the United States in 2000.

“The war took everything from me,” said Stevens. “I came to the U.S., and I was told, ‘If you work hard, if you do what you are supposed to do, you can have a dream in the United States.’ I was happy. I came with my family, and we did that.”

Stevens recalled time working for Boston Scientific and Medtronic and connections made in the community.

“I cannot wrap my head around it,” said Stevens. “How can somebody say, ‘Go home’ after living here for 18 years? With my kids? I have a home. I have a job. I have a hospital to go to. I have friends. I cannot wrap my head around, ‘Go home.’

“What is home?” continued Stevens. “As far as I know, Minnesota is my home. America is my home.”

Nicole Matson, a health care employer in the metro area, spoke to the contributions of the Liberian population to segments of the health care system in Minnesota.

“Right now, we’re facing critical work force shortages — that means we don’t have enough workers currently,” said Matson. “We are going to say goodbye to a pool of talent — they are highly skilled, they are educated, and they’ve been here. They’re committed to this organization.”

She noted that at one facility she was familiar with, 60 percent of the staff members were immigrants, a full half of whom were Liberian.

“I have no idea why we would leave behind such a critically important group of people who have been so important to the health care industry,” said Matson.

Immigration lawyer and human rights advocate Michele Garnett McKenzie agreed and spoke particularly critically of the legal ramifications of allowing DED to expire.

“The termination of Deferred Enforced Departure violates due process, including the right to family unity and integrity,” said Garrett McKenzie. “It’s part of an irrational action that’s motivated by an agenda to rid the United States of certain immigrants and their families.”

She noted that a lawsuit had been filed in Massachusetts late on Friday but expressed some doubts that the court system could take substantive action by the end of the month.

“People are frightened,” said Garrett McKenzie. “This impacts not one person, but the entire family, the community, the employers, the people they care for — it impacts us. We need to find a solution for this that takes into account the reality, that takes into account the human dignity of each of the people who live in our community, and that keeps us safe and well.”

Phillips echoed the moral imperative of finding a solution.

“We are a humane country,” Phillips said. “This is the United States of America. That’s what we have to recognize — our humanity, right now. We need to show the rest of the world what we stand for.”

Closing out the conference, Lunde emphasized the non-partisan nature of the plea.

“As mayor, this is my fourth time being at this moment, of DED needing to be extended,” said Lunde. “That’s both parties having control. I’m a Republican, and I support this 100 percent. President Trump can do this — we have been up until the second to the last day with President Obama, so this angst has been here before.”

Lunde also called for a more long-term solution.

“I’m hopeful — my faith in Sen. Smith and Congressman Phillips is that we can finally have a solution that doesn’t kick it down three more years, putting people in emotional stress based on the fact that we may or may not get it signed the next time.”