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‘A phenomenal moment’: Minnesota Liberians celebrate their hard-won path to U.S. citizenship

“This is the most joyful place in America tonight,” Rep. Dean Phillips told MinnPost Saturday evening, as seemingly everyone in the entire Brooklyn Park Community Activity Center beamed hard-won smiles over the month-old news that many Liberians who make their home in Minnesota are finally on their way to becoming United States citizens.

Phillips was beaming. Sen. Tina Smith was beaming. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was beaming. The volunteers running the U.S. Census information table were beaming. Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeffrey Lunde was beaming. Brooklyn Park City Council member Wynfred Russell was beaming. The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Director Michelle Rivero was beaming. Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Ilhan Omar, who sent messages of support that were read from the podium, were undoubtedly beaming from afar.

As ice rinks in the community center’s adjoining buildings simultaneously hosted several games of that most traditional of Minnesota sports, hockey, an event room hosted a few hundred Liberians and Minnesotans who heard speakers, danced to reggaeton and Afrobeat hits, feasted on African cuisine, and partied at the historic “Pathway To Citizenship Liberian Community Celebration.” And on a day when tens of thousands of people in Iran chanted “Death to America” and “America is the Great Satan,” in this small community center in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, a joyous roomful of Liberians celebrated what makes America tick, spiking the proceedings with regular cries of “Hallelujah!” and “Praise God!”

Less than a year ago, the mood was much different at the nearby Liberian Community Center in Brooklyn Park, when an “all hands on deck” cry went up, and dreamers and would-be new Americans responded to looming threats to their immigration status with prayers and signs proclaiming, “Dear President Trump, please provide permanent resident status for Liberians on DED and TPS.” Last month, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, inserted the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act into a huge defense spending bill that was passed by Congress, and which Trump signed days later.

In Brooklyn Center Saturday night, it was beaming smiles all around. MinnPost took in the celebration, in words and photos:

Christina Wilson and Louise Stevens, Brooklyn Park: “I feel relieved, though it’s still like I’m in a dream,” said Stevens. “I know something has happened and so I feel some relief. I sleep well. I came here in 2000, and I have been living with this on my shoulders since then. Maybe when I see the green card, I will actually believe it, but right now it’s just like I am having a good dream.”

“We could get our green card in six months or five years, depending,” said Wilson. “I have lived in Minnesota since 2000. Every year my DED has had to be renewed. If not, I could be sent back to Liberia. But right now, it is the law of the United States of America that I am a Minnesotan. Even though I don’t have my green card in my hand, there is a law on the books. So that alone makes me feel like a Minnesotan.”

“It means a lot to the community; not just to Liberians, but to Brooklyn Park and the state of Minnesota as a whole,” said Russell. “The majority of Liberians in the United States live in Minnesota, so it’s great to see that we’ve been able to find a permanent solution to this annual nagging issue of renewal, renewal, renewal. When every year comes around, at this time of year, the anxiety level in the community goes up, and now no more. So this is great.”

Phillips: “This is one of the most joyful days of my young career in Congress, in fact one of my most joyful days of my adult life; it really is. This community is one of very first I was introduced to when I started my campaign and they quickly became a part of my family, and I hope I became one of theirs. We set a mission, and it’s a beautiful example of what Democrats and Republicans can do if we set our minds to it. Between Mayor [Jeffrey] Lunde, who has been working on this for a long time, and Senator Smith, and President Trump signed it at the end of the day, and I want tonight to be about celebrating the fact that we can unite and get things done.”

Magdalene Menyongarknown as the “DED queen” in her community, attended the celebration with her daughter, Gabriel: “It means a whole lot to my family. My mom is in Liberia, and my brothers and sisters who I have not seen in 25 years, and I am glad. I am happy. It’s like a wake-up for my body, because we have had to renew every year. Yes, we do not have to do that anymore. Yes, we are grateful. We’re going to be dancing and celebrating tonight and for a while.”

Mustafa Jumale, Minneapolis: “I’m with the Black Immigrant Collective, which is based here in Minnesota. We’ve been working here with the Liberian DED holders for the past three years. Primarily we’ve been forced into that work because of the Trump administration, and we’ve been organizing around that. Liberian DED or Deferred Enforced Departure was our biggest campaign, and a big coalition has been part of this. After 20-plus years, they’re here to stay. It’s really phenomenal. You know how Congress is; nothing gets done, so for this to happen, it’s amazing.”

Sen. Tina Smith addressed the crowd: “To be here with you tonight, celebrating this victory, it just fills my heart. I came to know this community when I was lieutenant governor. I’ve gone to church with you, I’ve had meetings with you in Washington and here in Minnesota, and the stories that I learned from you, they touched my heart. So to be here with you today and to think about what we’ve accomplished, not only are we out of this limbo that so many of our neighbors have been living in for so many years, but we have a path to citizenship in five years. This is a victory for us. But it is because of your courage, your tenacity, the strength of your voices, that you changed the trajectory of history for this community. You did that, and Dean and I and Keith and others have only been able to play the role of lifting up your voices.”

The “Pathway To Citizenship Liberian Community Celebration” included a feast of African cuisine.

The “Pathway To Citizenship Liberian Community Celebration” included dancing to reggaeton and Afrobeat music into the night.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison addressed the crowd: “Liberia has done a lot for the United States. When the United States was fighting against Nazi Germany, you know who America’s ally was? Liberia. When the United States called, Liberia answered. And when the world needed to drive around in automobiles, Liberia said, ‘We’ve got a crop here called rubber,’ and so there’s a little bit of Liberia rolling all over Minnesota and the whole wide world. And the health care industry, the home care industry would not exist if we lost Liberians. We had to represent for our neighbors, and friends, and family, and this is a wonderful thing.”

Nekessa Opoti: “I’m with the Black Immigrant Collective. This is a phenomenal moment. This community has been in limbo for years. Many of them are working-class folks, and this is the home they’ve known after [surviving] civil war, and it’s nice that they can now relax. I think our work with the collective is to constantly be uplifting the national black immigrants, because many of us are undocumented and under the radar.

“But it needs to be said that The National Defense Act Bill, while we’re happy that the Liberian cause was able to be included in this, we also abhor and detest the defense bill, because it is spending billions of dollars to create terror in other parts of the world, and to actually increase the refugee crisis, and make our work even more difficult. We understand that this is the nature of politics, and that several good things are put into this bill, but the larger bill is violence. We’re happy that this was passed, but we also do need to make a statement that the larger bill is terrible.”