U.S. Ph.D. student faces deportation to Liberia, where she has never lived

Yatta Kiazolu.jpg
Yatta Kiazolu

Yatta Kiazolu moved to Los Angeles from Delaware to pursue her dream of obtaining a Ph.D. in history at UCLA.

But as she approaches her final year of the program, her dreams of walking across the stage with her degree in hand seem further and further away as her temporary visa status will expire at the end of this month. And she could be deported to Liberia, a country in which she has never lived, or even visited.

Kiazolu, 28, is one of the thousands of immigrants with Liberian citizenship who remain in the U.S. under a visa status called the Deferred Enforced Departure program.

Many of these DED beneficiaries indeed lived in Liberia before coming to the U.S. But not Kiazolu. She was born in Botswana to Liberian parents and so has Liberian citizenship. Her family moved to the U.S. in 1997 when Kiazolu was 6 years old.

Since then, she has been caught up in the vagaries of the DED rules and of U.S. immigration law more generally.

“This last year has been very anxiety ridden,” Kiazolu said in an interview. “It’s been hard to make long-term plans because this impacts every single part of your life. I’ve had to pass up job opportunities.”

And because DED holders are subject to limitations and have to get permission to travel outside the U.S., she received authorization to travel too late and had to cancel a planned overseas trip to Ghana, which was part of her Ph.D. research.

Since she’s been in the U.S., most of her family has been able to adjust their status to become U.S. citizens, but she hasn’t. Kiazolu said she tried on two occasions to apply for citizenship. In the first case, her grandmother petitioned for her to become a U.S. citizen, but her grandmother passed away as her application was being processed.

Then when Kiazolu turned 26 years old, she applied again but was told she had to wait seven years. As an adult child of permanent residents in the U.S., she has fewer avenues to become a U.S. citizen.

“I was very happy when my parents were able to adjust their status, and everyone around me is very supportive. It’s often hard because in my personal life I am the only one I know that is going through this,” she said. “I’m still in a state where I just don’t know, because there are so many moving parts, and my entire life is here” in the U.S.

What is DED?

The Deferred Enforced Departure program protects approximately 4,000 Liberian immigrants in the U.S. from deportation, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Since 1991, Liberians have been granted either Temporary Protected Status or DED by both Republican and Democratic presidents, as American authorities have been reluctant to send people back because of civil conflict in Liberia.

In 2007, President George W. Bush formally gave DED to Liberians whose TPS status was going to expire that year. Deferred enforcement for Liberians was continually renewed under the Bush and Obama administrations. However, the Trump administration announced last year that the program would end on March 31, 2019.

The Lawyers’ Committee, along with other organizations, filed a lawsuit against the administration for its decision to terminate the DED program for Liberia.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the UndocuBlack Network, an advocacy group, and 15 affected individuals, including Liberians raising U.S. citizen children.

Jonathan Jayes-Green, co-founder and director of the UndocuBlack Network, said that he is hopeful that the courts will rule in their favor and issue a national injunction to block the administration from ending the program.

“This is people’s lives we’re talking about,” he said. “People are really concerned about what the material conditions look like for them once this ends.”

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, said Trump’s pattern in ending these programs is to target people of color.

“These Liberian immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for decades should not have their rights impaired because of Trump’s bias,” Clarke said. “There has been a pattern with this administration whether you’re talking about DACA recipients or TPS or Liberians who have been protected under the DED program for decades. The Trump administration has been taking hostile stances driven by xenophobia and animus towards immigrants of color, and we’re fighting back.”

Grouped with DACA and TPS

The DED program for Liberia is the latest immigration program to be targeted by the Trump administration for termination. In the past two years, the administration has tried to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA, which protects more than 600,000 young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children, and the Temporary Protected Status designations for immigrants from several countries, including El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti and Sudan.

Federal courts, however, have intervened and blocked the administration from ending DACA and certain TPS designations.

Lawmakers have also tried to intervene and protect DED recipients from being deported before the March deadline.

Last week, several House lawmakers introduced a bill, dubbed HR 6, that would include protections and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, TPS recipients, and DED beneficiaries from Liberia.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said there is an urgency to pass this bill before time runs out.

“We’ve been trying to figure out how we make sure that we address all of these things that are coming up on slightly different timelines. Some of them are protected in the courts for a certain amount of time and some of them aren’t, and so it’s difficult because they’re all lumped into one category. But we understand that there is more urgency for some categories than others,” the Washington Democrat said.

Organizations that advocate lower levels of immigration argue that the deferred enforcement program should be ended.

“It makes perfect sense to end this status; it should have never been instituted in the first place after their TPS was ended,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “It would have been better if we pulled the plug on this years ago, but they signed up for this and pushed for this because they want to stay here instead of going back home.”

Krikorian argued that any legislative solution that is passed by Congress to allow DED beneficiaries from Liberia to stay in the U.S. and obtain permanent residency must include measures that will prevent this from happening again.

Life and death

Some DED beneficiaries remain optimistic that the courts will intervene and block the administration from ending the program or that Congress will pass legislation before the deadline.

Vestonia Viddy, 36, a DED recipient who has been in the U.S. since she was 9 years old, argued it is essential for Liberians to remain in America, and that it is a matter of life or death for some families.

“It is actually heartbreaking because I’ve lived in the United States lawfully since 1991, I’ve never been out of status, my family has been law abiding and productive members of society,” she said. “I have nothing to go back to in Liberia, I am very fearful of returning back there, I am fearful of my life.”

Viddy, an attorney practicing family law in Pennsylvania, was born in Monrovia, Liberia, tried to adjust her status a few years ago when her brother, who obtained U.S. citizenship through marriage, petitioned for her to become a U.S. citizen, but he died and her case was dismissed.

“I’m hoping that Congress passes something, that is my hope,” she said.” We’ve been here the longest, I’ve been documented the entire time I’ve been here, it’s really frustrating to see some people fall through the cracks like myself and my siblings.”

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