Yatta Kiazolu remembers the long list of documents her immigration lawyer requested last year.
“I printed bank records, school transcripts, paystubs, W-2s, my leases for the last six years or so, my passport and employment authorization cards — my entire immigration history,” she said.
Kiazolu is one of an estimated 10,000 Liberians living in the US who qualify for permanent residency. The Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness program or LRIF was attached to the 2019 defense spending bill, which also gave more funding to Border Patrol. Congress passed it, and it was then signed by former President Donald Trump.
Now, the deadline to apply for permanent residency is less than six months away, and so far, only about a third of the 10,000 Liberians believed eligible have submitted their applications, according to immigrant rights groups. This is the second time the government has extended the deadline.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services or USCIS — the agency that processes applications — reported that as of March 31, they’ve received about 3,396 applications.
Immigrant rights groups and immigration attorneys are urging the US government to extend the deadline again or remove it, so that more Liberians can gather their documents and save up for their application fees. They’re also hoping for more outreach and education about the program. Many argue that its slow rollout led to confusion about who qualified.
Thousands of Liberians fled two civil wars in the 1990s and an Ebola outbreak in 2014.
Each time, the sitting US president offered temporary protection from deportation, at first through Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and then through Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). Liberians were able to live and work with a work permit, renewable annually, if the president allowed it.
Kiazolu, 30, arrived in the US when she was 6 years old in 1997, after she and her family could no longer live in Liberia. “[We] had extended family that had already left Liberia,” Kiazolu said.
For 30 years, the Liberian community pushed for something more permanent, Kiazolu said.
When she heard about the news that this fairly small program had become law, for Kiazolu, it was a big deal. To qualify, a person needed to be physically present in the US since November 2014, and meet other requirements, like not having been convicted of an aggravated felony.
"I think I continued to just be in a state of cautious, cautious optimism that nothing would feel real to me until I got my green card.”
“I was still very much in a state of shock. First of all, just shock, right? That this had happened and it happened so quickly. But I think I continued to just be in a state of cautious, cautious optimism that nothing would feel real to me until I got my green card.”
Kiazolu applied and a lawyer help her through her application.
“It’s not that people don’t want to apply,” she said. “It's a difficult process to go through, especially on your own and in a pandemic, with the way the program is being administered. It makes it just difficult.”
Breanne Palmer, policy and community advocacy counsel for UndocuBlack Network, which advocates for Black undocumented immigrants in the US, said she understands why some Liberians in the US may be wary.
“They don't trust that this incredible program that was passed through Congress under the Trump administration is real."
“They don't trust that this incredible program that was passed through Congress under the Trump administration is real. It feels a little bit too good to be true to some people,” she said.
Palmer also said some requirements are hard to meet. One asks for an unexpired Liberian passport, which many people who have lived in the US for more than 20 years, might not have anymore. These requirements, and a looming deadline, can discourage potential applicants, she said.
USCIS, in an email, said that they’ve been working on expanding their outreach and that they feel confident that the number of applicants will increase.
“USCIS is making a good-faith effort to reach eligible individuals and help overcome any fear, mistrust or other barriers that might be keeping them from applying for adjustment of status under LRIF,” USCIS spokesperson Victoria Palmer told The World.
"We want to assure individuals that USCIS will evaluate any and all evidence to demonstrate eligibility ..."
“We know there have been challenges in some applicants’ ability to obtain primary evidence, and we want to assure individuals that USCIS will evaluate any and all evidence to demonstrate eligibility and have been working diligently to communicate and clarify that.”
Still, immigration lawyers like Lenore Millibergity said people who are on the fence should at least get advice from an attorney before deciding not to apply. Millibergity is a senior attorney with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, home to the largest Liberian population in the US.
“We [attorneys] can really evaluate the situation and let people know if they have reason to be concerned or if it's OK to go forward, because it is a wonderful opportunity.”
Millibergity said the difficult process is expected for a green card application. It’s rigorous, she said, but possible. In Minnesota, for example, the Liberian consulate has agreed to help applicants with their Liberian passports without leaving Minnesota, Milibergity said. When the LRIF program rolled out in 2020, many applicants had to travel to the Liberian embassy in DC, mid-pandemic, to get their passports processed.
While states with large Liberian communities are trying to streamline the process, Delali Dagadu, a law student living in DC, believes it's best to remove the deadline to attract more applicants. Dagadu left Liberia in 1999 to attend college in the US. She said her green card application was successful because she had resources — but many others don’t.
With only a thousand applications out of 10,000, Dagadu said she doesn't think the intent or purpose of the bill has been fully realized.
“We need time. The deadline is never on the side of the immigrant."
“We need time. The deadline is never on the side of the immigrant. We need time to gather our resources. We need time to talk about our situation, to complete our application,” she said.
Dagadu is now working with groups like UndocuBlack Network to raise awareness in the Liberian community. She hopes her success story gives undecided people the confidence to start their own processes. UndocuBlack Network also has online resources for people looking for answers, along with a list of immigration lawyers nationwide who have experience with LRIF.
As for Kiazolu, she can now breathe easier. She received her green card earlier this year. And as soon as that happened — she quickly applied for citizenship.
In late June, she became a US citizen.
“In the thick of it, I didn't think it would happen. I didn't know what would happen, but it felt like this was worth fighting for,” she said.
She also said the Liberian program shows that it’s not impossible to pass a much bigger immigration reform bill. But it also shows that the process could end up leaving many people out.