March 8, 2018 | Feature
a legal limbo
the end of temporary protected status for one rhode islander
Kim had to hide her books.
She kept them on the roof of her home in Monrovia, Liberia, out of her abusive half sister’s sight. At six years old, Kim left the coastal town of Lexington, where she had lived with her parents and 16 siblings, to move in with her half-sister’s family in Liberia’s capital. If her half-sister found out Kim had been teaching herself to read and write, she would certainly hit her, or worse.
Kim knew she needed an education. But that would cost money, and she was on her own. So she improvised, secretly selling wood and candy to pay for her school fees, hiding her earnings in a box under her bed.
Life at home grew steadily worse as Kim grew up. Over the 17 years she spent in Monrovia, the verbal abuse from her half-sister and her half-sister’s husband turned into regular beatings and sexual abuse. Nevertheless, against the wishes of her half-sister, she kept attending school and managed to keep her part-time job at the Liberian Department of Education, where she helped create curriculums for local students. Then, she found a way out.
I met Kim on a windy Sunday morning in Smith Hill. She had just finished her night shift, and she told me, with tired eyes, how she had come to the United States. Through the First United Methodist Church, Kim won a scholarship to study music in Spartanburg, South Carolina. With the help of a friend who worked for Pan Am, she bought a discount ticket to New York with the money stashed under her bed. She left Liberia without telling her sister. Immediately after Kim landed in February 1987, her suitcase and everything inside it was stolen. She stood in the center of JFK’s arrival terminal and cried.
1991, the year Kim finished her music degree at Spartanburg, was a dark year in Liberian history. A military coup that had started years earlier instigated a decades-long civil war. In response, the Bush Administration granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Liberians who were already in the United States if they had a clean criminal record. Kim was granted TPS and decided to remain in the United States, reapplying each year for employment authorization. By running away from her half-sister’s abusive household at 23 years old, Kim left behind both her family and a civil war that ultimately resulted in the deaths of 250,000 people—8 percent of Liberia’s population—before peace was restored in 2003.
In 2017, the Pew Research Center reported that about 325,000 immigrants from 13 TPS-designated countries live in the United States. Primarily from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti, these TPS beneficiaries fled earthquakes, civil wars, and other forms of violence. With TPS papers, which cost Kim $655 in annual fees, she is able to work, drive, and live legally in the United States.
But this year, the US Citizen and Immigration Services’ website had a different message for her: “The designations of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone terminate effective May 21, 2017.”
After 29 years of living in Providence, Rhode Island, Kim’s roots here run deep. Kim came to Rhode Island with her ex-husband, and the couple settled down with their son in an apartment along Broad Street. At first, the only work Kim could find was flipping burgers at a local Burger King, but when she was offered a free certified nursing assistant course at Golden Crest Nursing Home in North Providence, she jumped at the chance.
That certification got her a job at Golden Crest, where she spent 15 years taking care of elderly Rhode Islanders. The work was tough, with more than a dozen people depending on her for their daily needs. But after her husband left her and moved to Georgia to avoid paying court-ordered child support, she had no other option. Alone with her young son, Kim had to move into subsidized housing in a project to save money on rent.
She remembers coming home to their small apartment on a particularly difficult night. Her son was hungry, but they had no food. Their refrigerator was “bare, like brand new.” She had applied for government food vouchers through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program but was refused by the program because of her immigration status, even though she was here legally. That night, still hungry, Kim tried to kill herself. But Kim survived that night and many others. She is immensely proud of her son, who recently graduated from college. He’s now looking for his first job and living with Kim, trying to help her as she deals with possible changes to her immigration status.
It’s been five years since her son, now 24 and a US citizen, sponsored her for a green card. But after 31 years in the United States, this may be her last. Though she paid almost $500 to apply three years ago, US Citizenship and Immigration Services still hasn’t told her if she will be approved for a green card, only that they are “investigating her.”
Her time is running out because the employment authorization papers from the last TPS cycle expire this June. Once that happens, it’ll only be a matter of time before the hospital where she currently works the night shift finds out.
According to Deborah Gonzalez, Director of the Immigration Law Clinic at Roger Williams University, immigrants like Kim with a clean criminal record, US-born children, and steady work were generally approved for new employment authorizations within 90 days. Gonzalez says she has seen a systematic effort by the Trump Administration to slow down US immigration courts, stalling cases and leaving many potentially qualified citizens and green card holders in legal limbo. With a backlog of more than 600,000 cases for only 334 judges to hear, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pledged to hire 60 more judges in the next six months. Still, many applicants must wait years to learn if they qualify for citizenship.
Though immigration courts have been overwhelmed with cases for more than a decade, under the Obama administration, immigration enforcement could use “prosecutorial discretion” to choose which cases they wanted to prioritize. This meant that some immigrants who were not considered a risk to public safety could have their removal proceedings dropped, speeding up the system for everyone. However, a recent executive order has changed this policy. Immigration enforcement has now been instructed to prioritize all people who they consider “a risk to public safety or national security.” Gonzalez says this purposefully vague order is meant to let immigration enforcement begin deportation proceedings for as many immigrants as possible.
For Kim, a lengthier immigration court case might be disastrous.
“I spent all my life here working. I don’t have a home in Liberia,” says Kim. Without authorization, she may be deported to Liberia, a country she has not been to since 1987, without ever knowing if she qualified for a green card.
Other nations’ TPS programs are also at risk. In the last few months, 200,000 Salvadorans, 60,000 Haitians, and around 2,500 Nicaraguans were told by the Trump administration that their TPS status will expire. These immigrants must either leave or try to remain in the country illegally. The administration has still not decided if it will continue the protections for 50,000 Hondurans.
When I asked if US Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) has “slowed down the 90 days it takes certain types of employment authorization cards to reach immigrants,” Public Affairs Officer Paula Grenier directed the inquiry to John Martin, the regional public information officer for the Northeast at the US Department of Justice. Martin made clear that it is in fact USCIS, not the department of justice, that grants TPS and employment authorizations. When pressed on the timing of authorizations again, Paula Grenier recommended looking on the USCIS website, which has information on processing times. However, this data had not been updated in months, and when Grenier was made aware of this, she recommended filing a Freedom of Information Act Request. Attempts to contact Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for comment were ignored by their media relations team as well as by their regional office in Johnston, Rhode Island.
Kim won’t stop fighting to stay with her son in the country she calls home. Deborah Gonzalez, her pro-bono immigration lawyer, will soon file a lawsuit in the Federal District Court of Rhode Island, ordering US Citizenship & Immigration Services to schedule an interview for Kim, whose case has been pending for over 15 months.
She maintains hope, quoting a Liberian proverb that says, “If you look at the mountain, you will never climb it.” Much like the 325,000 other immigrants granted TPS, and their 275,000 US-born children, Kim plans to put her head down and work, as she’s always done. If her green card does eventually get approved, she wants to build off of her music degree and start singing again, this time professionally.
(At her request, Kim’s name has been changed to protect her identity.)