By: Christa Meland
Louise Stevens has lived in Minnesota for 18 years. It’s where she raised her daughter, who’s now attending college. It’s where she works two jobs. It’s where she owns a townhome. It’s where her friends are.
She is among several thousand Liberian refugees who have been living in the U.S. for many years but aren’t citizens and face possibility of being deported next year. Some Minnesota United Methodists have been working to change that through advocacy efforts both in Washington, D.C. and locally.
“If nothing happens to make us permanent, I’ll become illegal—and I’m too old to be running from the law,” said Stevens, 59, who assembles medical devices at Medtronic and provides care at a group home for vulnerable adults. “This is our home even though we were not born here.”
In 1991, Minnesota began welcoming Liberian refugees fleeing civil war in their country. They came under a temporary protected status that has been consistently renewed by both Democratic and Republican presidents ever since as Liberia’s lingering war was followed by a rebuilding period and a 2014 Ebola outbreak. But President Donald Trump formally announced Tuesday that he’s winding down what is now called “Deferred Enforced Departure” (or DED) and giving those on the program one year to leave the country or face deportation.
“I have nothing in Liberia,” said Stevens. “I am praying that Congress will look beyond the numbers and see us as human beings with needs. When people hear ‘immigrant,’ they think we don’t work hard or we’re trying to take things from people. It’s not like that. Immigrants are like anyone else wanting a normal life.”
Bishop Bruce R. Ough is urging the Trump administration and all United Methodists to extend compassion to Stevens and other Liberian refugees.
“I call upon the Trump administration and all United Methodists to see the face of Christ in the refugee,” he said. “Jesus is clear that we are to welcome the sojourner, love our neighbor, and stand with the most vulnerable among us. Liberian refugees and immigrants have richly blessed us with gifts of energy and resourcefulness and have contributed to the renewal of our society and the church. I implore President Trump to further extend Deferred Enforced Departure or grant citizenship to those with DED status. Refugees, immigrants, those yearning to be free—these are the ones whom Jesus spoke about when he said, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matthew 25:35). When we welcome a stranger, we welcome Jesus. This is an opportunity to live our Christian values.”
Seeking a path to citizenship
Wynfred Russell, a lifelong United Methodist who is himself from Liberia, worships at both Brooklyn UMC in Brooklyn Park and North UMC in Minneapolis—both of which have significant Liberian populations.
“People with DED status have become full-fledged Minnesotans over the past 27 years,” said Russell, who has previously taught at the University of Minnesota and worked at the Minnesota Department of Health. “They’ve planted roots here. They’ve created a diverse and colorful tapestry within the northwest suburbs with different shops and businesses. They are contributing immensely to the economy. We don’t want to uproot them and send them back and create this huge void.”
Russell has been advocating—in Washington, D.C. and at the state capitol—not only for an extension but for a path to citizenship for those with DED status. Several members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation have also urged President Trump to extend DED.
Minnesota is thought to be home to the largest Liberian population of any state in the country—possibly 30,000 or more, most of whom are concentrated in the northwest metro. Experts estimate that as many as 5,000 Liberians have DED status nationwide.
Russell and Rev. Henry Dolopei II, associate pastor at Brooklyn UMC, say that few Liberian members of Brooklyn UMC have DED status themselves—and the same is true at Fridley UMC, which has a worship service specifically geared toward its Liberian neighbors. But because the Liberian community is so interconnected, virtually all know people who do.
“We keep encouraging people to have faith and pray,” said Dolopei. He’s part of a Liberian clergy association that recently had a prayer service to raise money to send people to Washington, D.C. to advocate for an extension. He himself has written letters to congressional representatives and signed petitions.
“People are afraid they’re going to be separated from their children and families,” Dolopei said. “We’re asking God to speak to the president to give these people a path to citizenship.”
Brooklyn UMC has also brought in volunteer lawyers to consult with Liberians who will be impacted if there’s no extension. Attorneys have answered questions like: What will happen to my 401(k) if I’m not here legally? Do I need a power of attorney? What happens to my mortgage?
Retired clergy join advocacy effort
Rev. Linda Koelman and Rev. Mark Nordell, both retired clergy in the Minnesota Conference, have also been part of the advocacy effort.
Koelman, who served North UMC for 20 years until retiring last October, recalls talking with church attendees with DED status before previous extensions were announced. Their plan was to live quietly off the grid and hope to not be found and deported. But in many cases, their children were citizens, so doing that meant leaving relatives. She also recalls an older couple with DED status wanting to return to Liberia for a funeral but deciding not to do so for fear that they wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S.
“There needs to be a way to transition people [to permanent citizens],” she said. “The U.S. government has let them become deeply embedded and made this their home. It’s wrong to just pull that out from under them.”
Koelman, who is mostly working to educate people about DED and why an extension is important, believes the church has a responsibility to advocate on behalf of those with DED status.
“We say that we are united, we are a connectional church,” she explained. “If we ignore this huge part of our connection, are we living out our faith as Methodists? We hear over and over again in scripture that we are called to reach out to the lost, the immigrants, those who don’t have homes, those who are in need. This is a group that is in need of somebody to speak up and be a voice for them when their status precludes having a voice.”
Ten years ago, Russell and Nordell—who spent a decade serving Brooklyn UMC—worked together to help start African Career Education and Resources, Inc. (or ACER), a nonprofit that aims to advance the lives of African community members by providing access to leadership development and educational resources.
Nordell said there’s no clear path to U.S. citizenship for Liberians like there is for Somali people coming from East Africa. “That needs to be cleared up,” he said. “Many of these Liberians have been here for years. They have always lived under this terribly temporary status. Their lives have gone on. They have created families and developed into good citizen material. And yet, they’ve never had the opportunity to become citizens.”
Both Russell and Koelman point out that not only is granting an extension a matter of compassion; it is also a matter of practicality. A substantial percentage of the allied health care workers in Minnesota are Liberian. If those with DED status lose their work permits, nursing homes and other health care facilities would lose huge portions of their workforce.
“What’s going to happen to our health care industry without that group of people who have done a fantastic job caring for others?” said Koelman. “It’s our turn to care for them.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church