Concentrated in a group of bland red-brick residential buildings in the Clifton section of Staten Island is the largest Liberian community outside Liberia, a country of some 3 million on the West African coast. The product of a reverse migration of sorts – given that freed American slaves moved there in the 18th century seeking better lives – the group now faces yet another reversal: a sizable portion have been told they must move back to Liberia.
Staten Island is the unlikely home of “Little Liberia,” where an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Liberians reside, mostly in the Park Hill area, which encompasses Clifton. There is no one definitive reason for why Liberians chose Staten Island. “One family moved in and their relatives and all of sudden there’s a community,” said Jacob Massaqoi, director of African Refuge, a community-based organization that assists Liberians and other immigrants.
Arriving as part of New York City’s first major influx of West Africans in the 1990s, about 1,000 of Staten Island’s Liberians are in the U.S. under an immigration provision called Temporary Protective Status (TPS). U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services may provide TPS to immigrants in the U.S. who are unable to safely return to their home country because of ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster or other temporary extraordinary conditions. In Liberia’s case it was the bloody 14-year civil war, infamous for its use of child soldiers and murder of more than 200,000 people, which allowed Liberians to be eligible for TPS.
The status was originally set to expire last September because the civil war had ended, but then was extended due to the lack of infrastructure in Liberia. The new expiration date is March 2009. Thus, in six months about 1,000 local Liberians – most of whom have been here for several years at least – will become “unlawful residents,” making them vulnerable to be arrested, detained and deported.
“The situation is grave and most think it’s hopeless,” said Telee Brown, vice president of the Staten Island Liberian Community Association (SILCA) and the community’s main resource for news on TPS. “People are getting nervous by the day about what’s going to be the result come March.”
For many Liberians who escaped their country’s tumult by coming to Staten Island, the upheaval and violence generated psychological and emotional anguish that resonates anew with the TPS expiration date looming. “The trauma of the war has not even been worked out,” said Massaqoi. “Now they are experiencing another trauma by the fear of being uprooted again after their status expires.”
For the better part of two decades now, Liberians have been settling in Staten Island and considerably impacting the borough. Most have established roots in the community, acquiring houses, starting up businesses, paying taxes and building families. “I’ve been here for so long, almost 20 years,” said one elderly woman who came to African Refuge last month for healthcare help and food aid and did not want to give her name. “I don’t mind going back to contribute, but I will be leaving myself behind. There isn’t any work out there. I’m afraid because I come from America I might get robbed or even killed.”
The infrastructure and security in Liberia has been improving since last year. President Bush signed a Memorandum for the Secretary of Homeland Security last September, authorizing “deferred enforced departure” for 18 months (from Oct. 1, 2007, through March 31, 2009) for Liberians who had TPS as of Sept. 30, 2007. The memorandum was enacted after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appealed to Congress to permit Liberians living in the U.S. to remain longer to allow more time for the country to recover from the civil war.
Liberia is considered a third-world country, lacking reliable basic services such as electricity, education and clean water. “The roads have really improved, and there is potential for entrepreneurship,” said Dr. Emmanuel O. Oritsejafor, the interim director of the Office of International Affairs at North Carolina Central University, who was in Liberia in July. “Overall the security is fine with the UN peacekeepers stationed around the country, but there is a good bit of armed robbery in the city,” Oritsejafor said, referring to the capital, Monrovia.
Liberians in New York City on temporary protective status are able to work and receive social services, but they are not on a track to receive permanent resident status. “Some people think that if they get TPS, they are on the road to adjust status to permanent residence. That’s not really the purpose of TPS,” said Tom Shea, director of training and technical assistance at the New York Immigration Coalition. “If someone is otherwise eligible to apply to adjust status that’s fine – but TPS is not an automatic pathway to get a green card.”
Some Liberians with resources did file for, and were granted, permanent resident status. But those who didn’t file cite a number of barriers: illiteracy, lack of outreach and information, difficulty producing necessary documents and cost. “I didn’t file because I was going to go back after the war. But it just kept continuing,” said the elderly woman at African Refuge. “Now I can’t afford a lawyer or even a thousand dollars to apply for a green card.”
The options for Liberians who want to adjust their status and legally reside in the U.S. are limited – and time is of the essence. “They should grant Liberians general amnesty. There might not be war, but the country’s infrastructure will not be able to absorb the thousands of returnees,” said Brown of SILCA.
Liberians on TPS may appeal for asylum – as long as they apply within one year of entering the U.S. – but most local Liberian residents have lived here too long to apply. Others are more concerned about how the community will be impacted by expiration of their protective status. “This is going to break up families. It’s going to economically and emotionally strangle this community,” said Massaqoi.
City Councilman Michael McMahon, a Democrat/Working Families member who represents the northern end of Staten Island and is running for Rep. Vito Fossella’s seat in the U.S. House, recommends that President Bush grant a further TPS extension. “I was just in the Park Hill neighborhood about a week ago speaking to people about it,” McMahon said. “We know that it’s an issue, and if elected to Congress, it’s something that I’ll work on.”
McMahon calls the local Liberian community “an integral part of the growing middle class” that should be allowed to stay in its current home. Deportation “will certainly cause a great amount of turmoil in the Liberian community and the greater Staten Island community. That’s why we have to work to avoid it.”
The Liberian economy today is only half as big as before the civil war. Even the country’s largest employer – the government, with 45,000 in the civil service – is starting to cut jobs. “It depends on what the returnee wants to do. If they have some funding and want to start a business, that’s fine,” said Dr. Oritsejafor. “But if they go back thinking they’re just going to find a job with the government, that’s not possible.”