In January, I was in Washington for a couple of days and early on a Saturday morning took a Lyft car from Capitol Hill to Georgetown for a meeting with friends. The driver and I began to talk.
I know, I know, the chat with the Uber or Lyft driver has become kind of a cliché in this kind of piece but hear me out.
He was from Liberia, and as a child had fled that country with his grandmother during the civil wars there, vicious fighting that killed an estimated 200,000 and sent a million more to refugee camps in Guinea, Ghana and other African nations.
Several thousand, perhaps as many as 34,000, came to the United States, protected at first during George H. W. Bush’s administration by an order of temporary protected status (TPS). Refugees from other troubled nations, including El Salvador, Honduras, Sudan, Haiti and Nepal have received the TPS designation as well.
In 1999, when TPS for Liberians expired, President Bill Clinton set up Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED) status instead, stating that while “conditions have improved… the political and economic situation [in Liberia] continues to be fragile.” The refugees could stay.
The Lyft driver had worked hard to make a life here. He’d just left a dangerous yet lucrative job working at an electric arc furnace that at 9,000 degrees melted down automobiles for the steel and aluminum – but then he’d done some reading and became scared about the toxins he was breathing in. Now he was taking classes and driving to make ends meet.
He told me he actually liked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – Pompeo had just made his big speech in Cairo extolling America as a force for good and he admired that, he said, because as a young Liberian he had seen what happens when the civil order in a country disintegrates into brutality and death.
I wonder how he feels today about Pompeo and his capricious boss, Trump. My Lyft driver and his fellow Liberians who are alive and well because of the DED program almost saw it eliminated this weekend and faced deportation as undocumented immigrants. But just days before expiration, the administration relented and extended it for another year, through the end of March 2020.
Until now, such extensions have been commonplace – four past presidents regularly have given their approval, citing continuing instability and an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. What’s more, there’s a long, historic connection between our two countries. Liberia was colonized by America in the 19th century as a home for former slaves and their families, a plan, Orion Donovan-Smith notes in The Washington Post, “supported by some abolitionists and by slaveholders who feared revolts led by free blacks.”
Hostility between descendants of these newcomers and the Africans already there helped foment the bloodshed of civil war. Yet many of those who are here now were so young when they left, they have no memory of their homeland.
The off-again, on-again status of the Liberian refugees is unkind to them and emblematic of the Trump administration’s inability to craft an immigration policy that isn’t riven with resentment and confusion.
If we can be certain about anything when it comes to this White House it’s that nothing is certain. Last year, when Trump announced he was ending DED, the White House declared, “Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflict and has made significant progress in restoring stability and democratic governance.”
“Upon further reflection and review, I have decided that it is in the foreign policy interest of the United States to extend the wind-down period for an additional 12 months. The overall situation in West Africa remains concerning, and Liberia is an important regional partner for the United States.”
That’s good news – but only for now. Doubtless the reversal was in part due to Trump’s well-known fear of bad optics – the same apprehension that led to the president’s sudden reversal of his administration’s plan to cut funding for the Special Olympics.
Initially, he may have figured that the Liberians affected were so few in number that no one would notice his deportation order. And when he changed his mind and shifted his tone, he may have thought he was throwing a bone to a handful of immigrants for good publicity while continuing to grind up the skeleton of what’s left of American immigration policy.
After 22 years of living, studying and working in the United States with government authorization, how could I start to untangle the roots that I’d established here? How could I begin to establish them in Liberia, a country where I have no connections and only some distant relatives?”
“continues the Trump administration’s callous pattern of stripping protections from immigrants — a natural extension of the efforts to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA]and take away temporary protected status from those who fled violence and disaster in their home countries. Coupled with a refusal to provide avenues for gaining legal permanent residency in the United States, these actions have destabilized the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, threatening to cut off their futures and divide their families. Systematically dismantling these discretionary relief programs is, seemingly, the most expedient way for the administration to pursue its agenda: to force as many nonwhite, non-European immigrants out of the country as possible by capriciously taking away their legal status.”
but feckless is an excellent choice of words. In the last few days, Trump’s threatened to shut down the border “if Mexico doesn’t get with it,” and vindictively cut off foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, a move that can only worsen the flow of desperate refugees toward the United States.