PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — President Donald Trump on Thursday signed a one-year extension of a humanitarian program that allows Liberians to live and work in the U.S., days before it was set to end.
The White House issued a memo from Trump about the program for immigrants who came from the African nation to escape environmental disasters, the Ebola virus and war. The protected status for thousands of Liberians had been set to expire Sunday, which would have put them at risk for deportation.
The Republican president decided last year to end the program, dating to 2007. He said then that it wasn't needed because conditions in Liberia have improved. Trump now says that, "upon further reflection and review," he has decided it's in the foreign policy interest of the United States to extend a "wind-down period" for the program for an additional year.
Their re-integration "into Liberian civil and political life will be a complex task, and an unsuccessful transition could strain United States-Liberian relations and undermine Liberia's post-civil war strides toward democracy and political stability," he wrote in the memo.
Liberians "are surviving a huge storm that would have paralyzed our community, that would have separated families, that would have caused so many problems in our community," Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of Minnesota-based African Immigrant Services, said. Minnesota has one of the largest populations of Liberians in the U.S.
Kiatamba, who chaired a national campaign to extend the program for Liberians, called the extension not only a "huge victory" for Liberians, but for all immigrants across the U.S.
If the program hadn't been extended, Kiatamba said Liberians' driver's licenses could have been revoked in many states and they could have lost income, housing and medical insurance. Since many Liberians are health care workers, patients could have lost their caregivers, he added.
Two civil rights organizations sued in Boston this month on behalf of 15 Liberian immigrants as the deadline drew near. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Lawyers for Civil Rights argued that the decision to end the program was unconstitutional and based on race, ethnicity and national origin, and would break apart families. The program protects about 4,000 Liberian immigrants, the organizations said.
A coalition of attorneys general filed a brief Monday supporting the Liberian immigrants.
Trump's decision comes hours before a hearing that was set for Thursday afternoon on the civil rights organizations' request for an injunction to stop the government from issuing deportation orders, said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Clarke said they're now figuring out their next steps, following the one-year reprieve.
Clarke called it a "major win" for families and communities affected by the administration's "discriminatory decision."
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and immigration advocates praised the extension but said Congress should enact a more permanent resolution. Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, has been leading an effort for years to pass a bill to provide legal status and a pathway to citizenship for qualifying Liberians. Rhode Island has one of the largest populations of Liberians per capita.
"In the long-term, we still need a solution that provides certainty for this population, allowing them to get on a pathway to full citizenship," Reed said in a statement Thursday. "It is time for Congress to act on legislation that gives Liberians an opportunity to remain here permanently."
Avideh Moussavian, legislative director of the National Immigration Law Center, said the administration's decision is the "right thing to do" but "temporary relief is not enough."
The Philadelphia area has the largest population of Liberian immigrants in the United States, with 13,000, followed by Minneapolis-St. Paul with 11,000, New York City-Newark with 7,000, and Washington, D.C., with 6,000, according to census data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute. There are also pockets in Providence, Baltimore, Dallas and Atlanta.
Baenen reported from Minneapolis.