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Liberians in limbo

Granted temporary protected status, they have been allowed to live in the U.S. since 1991. They may soon be forced to leave, victims of an immigration system in desperate need of reform.

February 27, 2009

The special immigration classification that has permitted several thousand Liberians to live in the U.S. -- but not to become either legal permanent residents or citizens -- expires March 31. After that, they must either leave voluntarily or face mass deportation.

The Liberians have faced this deadline before. Since 1991, when they fled civil strife in their country and were granted temporary protected status, they have been granted at least eight extensions. People from six other countries also have been granted temporary protection and multiple reprieves. Last year, extensions were granted for Hondurans and Nicaraguans who arrived in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and Salvadorans who fled massive earthquakes.

Created by Congress in 1990 for immigrants whose home countries were unsafe because of war, civil strife or natural disaster, the temporary protected status designation was never meant to provide a route to permanent residency. But in the years that followed, the U.S. repeatedly failed to stick to that fundamental premise.

As a result, this well-intentioned humanitarian program has come to exemplify the worst of our immigration system's unintended effects, exacerbating diplomatic tensions and raising false hopes among those it is intended to protect. It leaves immigrants in perpetual limbo, hurts employers of temporary residents and dismays immigration foes when deadlines are extended.

Of course, there are often compelling reasons to let people stay. President Bush granted the Liberians their most recent extension, at the request of Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Her country, she said, could neither absorb the returnees nor do without their remittances -- about $60 million annually. Liberia has about as many people as Orange County and an unemployment rate of 85%, and remittances account for about one-quarter of its national income.

But at the same time, the granting of such extensions -- or even the decision to offer protected status in the first place -- often has more to do with politics than necessity. Hondurans, for example, received protected status after a hurricane, but not Haitians, whose island was hit by four hurricanes last year. And if the Salvadorans got an extension last year, why not the Liberians, whose country remains in turmoil?

The confusion created by the temporary protected status designation serves as one of many reminders that comprehensive reform should remain a federal priority. Today, revival of the economy eclipses all other Washington debates, but immigration reform is critically needed; its deferral only deepens the troubles of the Liberians who came here in accordance with our laws, but whose future is captive to our politics.

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