Failures of Refugee Law and the Inhumane Prospect of Deporting Settled Liberians from the United States

Posted on Categories Federal Law & Legal System, Human Rights, Immigration Law

This semester I am teaching a seminar entitled Comparative Refugee and Asylum Law, and last week, one of my students in that course, Vintee Sawnhey, sent me a link to a news article about the thousands of Liberians who fear deportation from the United States because the “deferred enforced departure” status that President Bush extended to them in September 2007 is scheduled to end on March 31, 2009.  

I should probably preface the rest of this long post by explaining that the article Vintee sent me was especially interesting to me because I worked with many Liberians during and just after law school, at Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, now called The Advocates for Human Rights.  Most of my work for that organization involved interviewing prospective asylum-seekers, to assess their credibility and the strength of their claims for asylum.  My work there happened from late 1996 through early 1999, and many of our clients were Liberians.  Minnesota has a relatively large population of Liberians.  (You may want to check out the Minnesota Star-Tribune’s really nice website about Liberians in Minnesota.)

Anyway, as Vintee pointed out, the situation of these Liberians is “pretty relevant to some of our current readings” in my asylum law seminar. Indeed, the situation of the Liberians facing possible deportation later this year illustrates two of the most important ideas in the course:  (1) the legal definition of “refugee” does not include people fleeing from generalized civil war conditions, and (2) offering “temporary” humanitarian protection in place of permanent refugee status to such individuals is problematic, because countries experiencing civil war do not become stable very quickly, and human beings build new lives in the meantime.

To get asylum in the United States, you must prove that you meet the legal definition of a “refugee,” that is, you are fleeing from persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”  That is why people fleeing from generalized conditions that threaten human life, such as civil war, fall outside of the legal definition of “refugee”: the persecution they fear is not “on account of” one of the five protected grounds.

Thus, while many Liberians I worked with were “refugees” within this legal definition because they feared being targeted due to their political or family relationships, or their ethnic background, many others were not, because they could not establish that they would be targeted on account of one of the special “protected grounds.”  It was difficult to explain to the latter group that they were not “refugees.”  At the time, I was therefore very glad that the United States had determined to grant Liberians who arrived during certain designated periods a “temporary protected status,” or TPS. At least there was some protection to offer most Liberians we interviewed.  

Now, though, ten, eleven years later, thinking of people who have been establishing lives here, now facing the prospect of being forced to return to Liberia, I wish that at that time I had worried more about the fact that for so many of them, their protected status was only “temporary,” at least in name. 

How do we reconcile the fact that we welcomed Liberians here for five, ten, fifteen or more years, with the word “temporary” we attached to their official legal status?  Proponents of the deportations have claimed that allowing Liberians to stay “makes a mockery of the concept of short-term temporary humanitarian protection,” but any such mockery happened years ago, as protection was extended, again and again, with the label “temporary” still attached.  That dry, legalistic phrase, “extending TPS,” had the real life result of allowing human beings to build lives here.  Thousands of Liberians made their homes here in the United States for years and years in such a “temporary” status.  And thank God for that.  It allowed them to feel safe, to forget the horrors many of them had experienced, to build new lives.  Find jobs, buy houses, start businesses, have children. Become members of their communities.  Tearing those human beings from their lives here cannot change the fact that the lives we allowed them to build here were not “temporary.”

To me, it seemed disingenuous from the start to label the protection we were granting Liberians “temporary.” It should have been clear that such horrific civil strife as was taking place in Liberia from 1989 to 1996 would take years to stabilize. Indeed, while things are much improved there now, and while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may provide a path to peace and stability, the country is hardly prospering, with an unemployment rate of a “staggering eighty-five percent,” according to the UN’s World Food Programme.  The Liberian government itself opposes the deportations, fearing a “destabilizing effect on the country’s fledgling economic and social structures.”  

I hope that many members of the Liberian diaspora are able to repatriate and help rebuild their homeland. Liberia needs them.  But not all of them can or should do so.  Having invited these human beings to weave themselves into the fabric of our communities, for years, even decades, we should not force them to leave now.  Not to mention the fact that many of them have raised children here, children who have no memory of Liberia, perhaps never even set foot in that country.

Beyond the fundamental inhumanity of tearing people from their communities here, the prospect of our country forcibly deporting Liberians is particularly repugnant, to me at least, given the United States’ historical relationship with, and special responsibilities toward, Liberia.  As the Library of Congress general resources portal on Liberia states,

Liberia was settled by freed American slaves in 1821 and became an independent republic in 1847. Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves, dominated the country until 1980, when Sgt. Samuel Doe led a violent coup that led to the killing of President William Tolbert. By a fraudulent election, in 1985, Doe became Liberia’s first indigenous president. 

That brief summary glosses over the many other ways in which United States policy and actions from before the founding of that nation and up until the present day have affected Liberia’s political and economic development. Any reader of the history of the relationship between the United States and Liberia must acknowledge that the United States bears significant responsibility for the ethnic and political tensions that drove Liberia to war and created the forced migration crisis in that country.  In view of our historical relationship with Liberia, we were right to offer protection to all of fleeing the Liberians who sought safety here.  Having allowed them to make homes here for years, we should offer them a path to permanent residency.  

In December, a number of congressional representatives, including Milwaukee’s Gwen Moore, wrote to Bush and Obama in December, seeking an extension of the Liberians’ status here.  In January, a large number of NGOs (including The Advocates for Human Rights, the National Immigrant Justice Center, and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.) renewed that request. The Advocates’ website has more information about efforts to prevent the deportations, and even a postcard you could send to the President about the issue, were you so inclined.  I plan to do so myself.

9 thoughts on “Failures of Refugee Law and the Inhumane Prospect of Deporting Settled Liberians from the United States”

  1. Gee, if it’s inhumane to force them to leave this country, then couldn’t it be construed to be inhumane to have accepted them in the first place? One could construe immigration as being an inhumane practice that should be stopped, because it only serves to disappoint the refugee when he is asked to return to his homeland.

    Change is traumatic, whether it be entering or leaving this country. This country cannot afford to accept everyone who would become a refugee from strife, as we’d be quickly overburdened by the support that such people need to enter a more sophisticated society, which would include vast sums of precious and scarce taxpayer dollars. It is obviously impractical to accept everyone, and if what you propose is permitted, I can assure you that the public would eventually feel this new burden and acceptance of refugees would eventually come to a standstill, and people who are actually experiencing immediate suffering will have nowhere to go, even on a temporary basis. Americans will see that “temporary” is not truly temporary at all, and act accordingly.

    Our government has to make the hard decisions; look out for the best interests of our citizens, or accept a lower standard of living for citizens as vast sums go to accepting foreigners who can’t manage their own conflicts.

  2. Well, that seems a little overblown. Accepting these Liberians to stay will not burden our economy very much, if at all. At the present time, fewer than 4000 Liberians have registered for the status that would enable them to stay if the law is changed. Even if more register, the CNN article says that about 14,000 came on the temporary status. It’s just not that many people. And what I said is that, having offered them homes here for so long, legally, having given them a legal right to live and work here, build businesses, buy homes, have families, some for almost 20 years, yes, I think it’s inhumane to now reject them, uproot them, force them back.
    Of course government has to make hard decisions, but allowing the Liberians who have already been living here peacefully and prosperously, enriching our society, for years, will not do a thing to lower our standard of living.

    If you want to hear the voices of some of the human beings who have made their homes in Minnesota after fleeing the Liberian conflict, you could watch this video,, where some of them talk about giving testimony for the Liberian Truth Commission.

  3. Thanks very much for the article. Yes, it is inhumane to take in human beings (who as desperate refugees had to accept any term to escape being killed) just to throw them out more than a decade later. It is inhumane to grant refugees who are human beings a “temporary stay” while their country is destroyed for fourteen years without any international intervention until all is lost. It is inhumane after all has been devastated, with nothing to survive on, to tell those very people to pack up not only their new possessions, but their American born children and depart for a place that is no longer home to many of these people. Human beings are not cattle that can be moved to a new grazing field after one field is worn out or when the owner decides to use it for another purpose. We love America, and Liberians have suffered enough. Those who refuse to be compassionate have never seen what war can do. We who have seen war, have seen the cruelty of war and have lost everything, know how to appreciate this great country, but throwing Liberians out is hard to believe.

  4. Thank you so much for that comment. I agree with all that you have said. I agree that it is hard to fathom our county actually deporting the Liberians who have lived here for so long. I hope that some kind of temporary status will be extended this month, followed by passage of legislation providing a path to permanent residency and citizenship for the Liberians who fled here.

  5. I am so glad I ran across this article, as one of the thousands of Liberians facing the prospect of deportation, I am very troubled that people feel that Liberian immigrants will be a burden on American society. I have been in the United States since I was 8 years old and have spent the last 18 years living as a law abiding, tax paying member of American society. I have no real memory of Liberia except living through the war. I know no one in Liberia and I believe I am as American as children born in the U.S. I went to college here, I have a job here, have never been arrested or on welfare. I have paid taxes to the United States since my very first job the summer before 7th grade. It troubles me how easy it is for other immigrant groups to gain a path to permanent residency/citizenship, when they have stable countries that they could choose to return to, but a group of people displaced because of a civil war that has totally destroyed their country have to then be subjected to the harsh comments and judgments of people who have no real understanding of what the ramifications of the decision to deport a group of people are. I personally am tired of the emotional stress that happens every year at this time. If I am going to have to quit my job that I love, if I am going to have to spend insane amounts of money renewing documentation, or if I am going to have to return to a place that is as unfamiliar to me as it would be to any other American, I will be very happy when a final decision is reached and I no longer have to live in fear every March.

  6. Thank you so much for reading the blog and for that beautiful comment. I was heartened that the temporary status was just extended, and I hope that legislation can be passed to create a path to permanent residency and citizenship for the Liberians who have lived here after fleeing the wars in Liberia.

  7. As a Liberian who was on TPS from 1991-2006 I know the horrors of uncertainty of living in limbo constantly. As a teacher, I was pulled out of the classroom and terminated in the hallway when my TPS ended and was not renewed. I am not a lawyer but there are fundamental flaws with the TPS provision as it is now.

    First, there is no cut off date so a person can remain on TPS for 30 years in a country. It would be better to put in place that if a person’s country has not returned to some semblance of stability within perhaps 8 years, then that person is automatically given residency. That is more humane.

    Second, the work permit is tied to the TPS. The TPS guidelines states that the Attorney General should redesignate a country for TPS status 60 days before the TPS expires for that year. Well, Janet Reno and the others after her would wait until a week before it ends, or at times two weeks after it is terminated to renew the TPS. By that time, hundreds have lost their jobs as it would be illegal to continue to hire them.

    Third, it is a question of fairness. Thousands of Eastern Europeans were given permanent residency before they even set foot in the US when some of their countries were at war. Thousands of Chinese here were giving residency because of the Tiananmen Square incident (which was hardly a civil war). By Sept. 2008 there were more than 20,000 refugees accepted from East Asia and about 30,00 from Near east and South Asia. The unallocated reserve is about 8,000. Surely that can be given to the Liberians? By the end of March of this year, almost 40,000 Near East and South Asia refugees were admitted in the US.

    For those who say that this is not the business of the US, a bit of history:

    During WWII Liberia’s largest trading partner was Germany. The Germans built roads and hospitals in Liberia. When the war started. at great cost, Liberia took the side of the Allies because of our “historical ties.” A German war boat came to the Liberian port and demanded that the Liberian government hand over all Americans living in Liberia. Liberia refused and the Germans bombed the Liberian seaport (Liberia’s main source of income). After the war, when Liberia appealed to the US to help rebuild its port, the US made Liberia take out a loan. No Marshall Plan here! Liberia was the home of the Voice of America radio station, With its vast Firestone plantation, Liberia provided latex and rubber to the US and others during the war as Japan had possession of all the other rubber producing countries. US war planes and gun boats can land in Liberia with minimal notice. When the democratically elected government of William Tolbert was overthrown in Liberia, the US helped the dictator Samuel Doe, and during Doe’s reign of terror, from 1980-1990, the Liberian government received more aid (mostly in arms) from the US government than it had ever received in its more than 100 years existence. The war that resulted was a direct consequence of that.

    Now, lets talk about fairness and TPS.

  8. So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.

    At present, however, there appear to be at least two possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law. The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees.’

  9. I enjoyed Jessica’s expose but I differ from her on her characterization of the definition of refugee as not being applicable to Liberians because they fled a general civil war and as such are not qualified as refugees insofar as they did not flee from persecution — that is, because they did not meet the legal definition of a “refugee” as one who is fleeing from persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

    Jessica’s perception about the Liberian situation contradicts the realities of the Liberian civil war, which was simply not a textbook example of a civil war.

    As a Liberian and victim of the civil war, I wish to reveal the true nature of that war, which indeed degenerated into the persecution of Liberians for adhering to a specific social grouping, religion, or political opinion.

    Though the civil war may have appeared to the West as an insurrection by Liberian citizens opposed to the Samuel Doe regime, the core membership of the rebellion belonged to a specific social group of Liberians known as the Gios and Mano tribes from northern Liberia, who were persecuted by the Samuel Doe regime and his Krahn tribes. The Gios and Mano tribes of Nimba County embraced the rebellion as a means to liberate themselves from the persecution by the Samuel Doe regime.

    And when the rebellion had the upper hand, the Gios and Manos tribes began themselves to persecute and kill anyone they suspected of being from the Krahn and Mandingo tribes or of working in the Samuel Doe government.

    As these crisscrossed persecutions continued, the Mandingo tribe, which fled into exile in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, also picked up arms in concert with the Krahn tribe, which itself fled into exile after first aiding Charles Taylor and his rebellion to depose the Samuel regime but then counter-launched its own rebellion against Taylor.

    In their quest to remove the Taylor rule, the Mandingo and Krahn rebels persecuted and killed anyone they suspected of belonging to the Krahn tribe as well as Christians or anyone expressing disliked opinions.

    In short, while the article expresses great insight about the Liberian situation, I believe that the United States definition of refugee is skewed outside of the true definition of “refugee” as defined by the United Nations Refugee Convention and its succeeding protocols, which automatically qualify Liberians as refugees but which the United States (at least as to the original convention) has never ratified and, thus, under which the United States is not obligated.

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