In New York’s ‘Little Liberia,’ some immigrants get ready to leave — or go underground
At 67, Rose Knuckles Bull has had enough. The onetime government administrator and Liberian refugee says she put in her time working, paid her taxes and now just wants to go home. Bit by bit, she is packing her things and saving up for a container to ship everything back to Careysburg.
That’s not an option for Prince. The 52-year-old has a teenage daughter in school here and nothing to return to in Unification Town.
As for 50-year-old Alexander Morris? The clergyman from Monrovia is leaving his fate to God.
Across America, time is running out for thousands of Liberians who came here in the face of a grinding civil war, staggering poverty and disease. Some have already lost their legal status to be here. For others, their protected status will expire in less than a year.
But for all, there’s an inescapable reality — those who have made a life in the U.S. now must decide whether to return to a country they haven’t known for years, or stay put and live life on the margins, risking deportation. In the larger picture, the Liberians are just the front edge of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from other countries who soon could face the same fate.
Temporary protected status, or TPS, the legal designation that allows immigrants from countries affected by war or natural disaster to work and live in the U.S., expired for Liberian immigrants last May.
Another form of discretionary relief known as deferred enforced departure, offered to Liberians who arrived in the 1990s and early 2000s, was set to run out last month but President Trump gave those Liberians one final year to “wind down” their lives in America. Some hold out hope that Congress will intervene before time runs out.
The Census Bureau estimates there are close to 90,000 Liberians in the U.S., many of whom are concentrated in the Northeast and East Coast, from Minnesota to New York.
On Staten Island, New York City’s smallest and whitest borough — and the only one that voted for Trump — Liberians are clustered in a few brick apartment buildings along Park Hill Avenue. The area, next to the island’s northeastern shore, was once plagued by violent crime and drugs, but is today a mostly peaceful, tightknit community shared with immigrants from other West African nations.
“Liberians on Staten Island are at the front lines of the Trump administration’s attack on immigrants,” said Javier Valdes, co-executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York. “This community is … experiencing the pain that will strike roughly 300,000 TPS holders from other countries very soon if Congress fails to act.”
In one building full of Liberians, nicknamed the “executive mansion” after the presidential home in Liberia, an elderly woman cooks lunch each day for anyone who needs a meal. On Sunday mornings, women wearing tall head wraps and bright dresses with geometric prints fill the pews of evangelical churches. People take one another food from the local pantry. They don’t inquire about legal status.
Bull arrived in the U.S. on a visitor’s visa in 1999. She had been in the country before, in the 1970s, when she studied sociology at Susquehanna University and earned a master’s degree in education at Howard University.
Back in Liberia she worked for the Ministry of Education and administered the government’s civil service exam. But when the country devolved into civil war, she fled with her children, living as a refugee in the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria.
Shortly after Bull came to the U.S., then-President Clinton granted Liberians a form of deportation relief and work authorization known as deferred enforced departure.
Since then, Bull has lived and legally worked in New York through various renewals of that program and of TPS. She did temp work, worked as a substitute teacher and eventually got a full-time clerical job with the city. Through it all, she paid taxes and sent money back home to help put her four children through college. Two of them now live in the U.S.
In 2013, Bull retired and began collecting Social Security, a benefit she is legally entitled to as long as her status doesn’t change. But when deferred enforced departure ends, so will her monthly payments.
As the original March 31 expiration date loomed, Bull began preparing for her departure, slowly packing clothes, bedding and even furniture to take back home. She said she wants to return to Careysburg, about 20 miles northeast of Monrovia, the country’s capital, to see her 93-year-old mother and to help rebuild her country. She has plans to open a home for seniors. Mostly, though, she’s tired of trying to carve out a full life in America.
“I have outgrown the stress of this,” Bull said. “I have never used my skills here. I just decided I would be more helpful to my people back home.”
Liberia and the U.S. have a long, intertwined history, going back to the early 1800s, when Liberia was settled by freed American slaves. The country, whose flag bears a strong resemblance to Old Glory, became independent in 1847.
In 1926, Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. began operating in Liberia under a 99-year, 1 million-acre land concession that dramatically expanded U.S. influence. Firestone supplied rubber for the Allied powers during World War II and later cooperated with warlord Charles Taylor during the civil war of the 1990s.
The Liberian migration to the U.S. began with the civil war, which dragged on for 14 years and killed more than 200,000 people, and flared again with the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Some who fled were admitted and settled in the U.S. as refugees. Others received temporary protected status, first designated in 1991 and later renewed and redesignated several times.
Returning to Liberia is out of the question for some. Still recovering from the legacy of conflict and Ebola, the country has a weak economy, poor infrastructure and limited healthcare.
“For the most part if it were feasible for people to return, people would have returned,” said Amaha Kassa, executive director of African Communities Together, a New York-based nonprofit that supports African immigrants. “People are saying, ‘Unless I’m deported, I’m going to remain as long as I’m able.’”
Kassa is working with other advocates and policymakers to ensure that Liberians are included in any immigration deal that Congress considers.
Critics of TPS say the program was always meant to provide only temporary emergency relief, not a long-term path to residency.
But that’s precisely what Prince, who asked only to be identified by his first name for fear of being deported, is hoping for. He came to the U.S. in 2013 and was granted TPS in 2014. He underwent back surgery for a ruptured disc and worries he cannot get adequate care in Liberia. His daughter, whom he described as an “A” student who dreams of becoming a doctor, is about to graduate high school.
“The situation back home is so bad … we can never go back,” Prince said. “If she goes she will not have the same opportunities.”
Since losing their status last year, Prince and his daughter have quietly continued to go about their lives. He works off the books as a private security guard and avoids going out in public.
“Every day I think we could be picked up any time,” Prince said. “I don’t socialize. I work, I go home. I tell my daughter, ‘From school, come straight home. Don’t go nowhere.’”
As Prince spoke, standing near an empty lot where in warmer weather vendors sell dried fish and fufu at an outdoor market, the streets around him were empty. One man, an immigrant from Guinea whose temporary status also expired last year, sat in his car watching for police and immigration officers, ready to alert his neighbors and friends at the first sign.
“People are hiding,” said Jennifer Gray-Brumskine, a community organizer with Make the Road New York who is Liberian and lives on Staten Island. “They’re always in a hurry, just going to work or going to the store and staying out of trouble.”
On Sundays, some churches provide van transportation and meals so people don’t have to walk to services or the grocery store and risk encountering a police officer.
“For a lot of people the refuge is the church,” Gray-Brumskine said.
Morris is one of them. He came to the U.S. about six years ago to study with the Bethel Church. He worked two jobs — a park maintenance worker by day and a home health aide by night. On weekends he led prayer services, earning a stipend from church donations.
Now that stipend is all Morris can count on. He lost his jobs when TPS ended.
“What I really miss is the people I worked with … work mates, patients. I miss the companionship and being able to help,” he said.
Morris usually takes home about $500 a month from the church, just enough to pay rent on the basement apartment he hopes his wife and three children, who are still in Monrovia, may one day call home. He gets by doing odd jobs for other Liberians, helping someone move, for example, or cleaning an apartment. He refuses to go to the local food pantry — or go into hiding.
On a recent Sunday morning the gray-haired deacon, dressed in a collared shirt and neatly pressed slacks, paced back and forth at the front of the Bethel Worship Center, delivering rapid-fire prayers. During the service, a boisterous affair with loud music and dancing, he mingled with congregants in the aisle, shaking a saasaa for percussion and swaying his hips, his eyes closed.
“You’ve just got to make yourself joyful,” Morris said. “Which one of us by worrying can add anything to our situation?”
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