‘It’s been 25 years’: Liberians celebrate new pathway to citizenship
Washington, DC, January 3, 2020 | MPR
The official parties get under way Saturday, but Magdalene Menyongar says she’s been dancing in her kitchen since last month.
"I danced for three days straight,” she said, recalling her reaction to a new measure giving many Liberian immigrants a shot at a permanent future in the United States. “People were like, ‘Can you take a break? I said, ‘No, it's been 25 years.’"
She even broadcasted her jubilance to friends on Facebook Live. The video shows her standing at her kitchen counter and dancing away while proclaiming: “To all the people who said, ‘She will be deported!’”
Menyongar has good reason to be joyful after living in the U.S. with uncertainty for 25 years. Last month, President Trump signed into law a measure allowing Liberians with temporary status to be in the country permanently. The community is celebrating with two events Saturday in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center.
Known in the Liberian community as the “DED queen,” Menyongar has advocated for years for those who hold the temporary visa known as Deferred Enforced Departure. It was a risk to go public with her story. If the U.S. government were to end the program, as Trump had previously threatened to do, she feared one day she would lose status in the country.
But Menyongar, 49, a nursing assistant from Maple Grove, said she realized she needed to speak up.
"I think most of the time if you have a story and keep quiet, you might not get the help you want,” she said. “So, we had to come out and explain our story. A few ladies in Minnesota, we took the lead to explain our story, and our senators heard our story. They listened and they took that back to D.C."
A new bill that passed the U.S. House and Senate last month will give many Liberian immigrants in Minnesota and across the country the chance to apply for permanent residency — and later, citizenship. Lawmakers called it a major victory for the Liberian community, which has established deep roots in Minnesota.
President Trump signed the widely supported National Defense Authorization Act in December. It includes a provision that will allow for this pathway to citizenship.
After many years of uncertainty, Menyongar said she can finally plan her life.
"My mom is 98 years old. She's in Liberia. I called her yesterday,” she said. “I said, ‘The president of the United States signed the bill and gave us a green card, so I will apply for my green card and I'm coming to see you."
Menyongar came to the U.S. on a visitor visa in 1994. As the Liberian civil war continued, she received temporary status. The program would expire every year or 18 months and require an extension by the President of the United States.
During that time, Menyongar got married and had a daughter. She was living in Georgia at the time, but after her husband passed away, she came to Minnesota to be with family.
Minnesota is home to the largest Liberian population in the country. They include not only DED holders like Menyongar, but permanent residents and U.S. citizens. Nationwide, there are as many as 4,000 who have DED status and are celebrating the opportunity to stay permanently.
When Trump had threatened to end the program, it prompted calls for a permanent fix for Liberian immigrants.
Although the bill was a victory for DED holders, it allows all unauthorized Liberian nationals to apply for a green card — as long as they've been in the U.S. for the past five years. Advocates say they'll be encouraging even those in immigration detention to apply.
Menyongar, who works at North Memorial Health Hospital, plans to study nursing. She says she hasn't been able to further her education because she couldn't apply for financial aid. With a green card, she'll be able to.
“I've been here for the past 25 years and abide by the rules, work, pay my bills, and do everything that any other citizen here,” she said.
She’s helping organize a community-wide party Saturday in Brooklyn Park that U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips are expected to attend.
Menyongar says she’ll be there, too. And of course, she’ll be dancing.