Liberia Has No Capacity To Absorb “TPS” Returnees

By Wynfred N. Russell

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
October 5, 2006


For over 16 years, nearly 20 thousand Liberians fleeing a vicious civil war benefited from an American government hospitality program called “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS). This stopgap immigration measure granted to eligible nationals, gave Liberians the legal permission to live and work in the United States as long as conditions in their homeland remain unsafe to return.

The civil conflict, which started in December 1989, officially ended in 2003 when the former warlord-turned president Charles Taylor was ousted. Mr. Taylor now awaits trial in The Hague for war crimes primarily for his support of rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone who meted out horrendous pain and suffering on the people of that nation. In Liberia, a new government was inaugurated in January of this year, headed by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female head of state in modern Africa. Over 10-thousand United Nations peacekeepers are providing security and coordinating humanitarian relief, buttressed by an armada of local and international non-governmental organizations.

This respite from war, couched in a context of unspeakable hardship, wanton damage to the infrastructure, and tense security conditions is being interpreted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as conducive enough to not extend the Liberian TPS, effective October 1, 2007. This means Liberians could begin returning home either voluntarily or by deportation, unless they can regularize their immigration status, a process that will be difficult for many. There are three main avenues by which Liberians could regularize their status: get married to a U. S. citizen or permanent resident; get a U.S.-based company to file a labor attestation on their behalf (commonly called H1B visa), the last and most plausible, is a congressional amnesty. But, putting Liberians on a permanent residency fast track would face fierce opposition, especially from supporters of the Mexican guest-worker program and other immigrant reform initiatives that are currently stalled in the Congress. Nevertheless, to compare the situation of the two groups is to not appreciate the complexity of their dilemma.

This decision by the Bush administration has manifold implications for the Liberians affected and for the nascent government of president Johnson-Sirleaf.

The DHS justifies its decision to end the TPS program by saying that conditions in Liberia no longer warrant this special status. It says the program should be terminated because “the extraordinary and temporary conditions that formed the basis of the designation have improved such that they no longer prevent Liberians (or aliens having no nationality who last habitually resided in Liberia) from returning to their country in safety”, according to the official announcement from Homeland Security.

Several questions linger regarding the capacity of the Liberian state to absorb the influx of returnees from the United States. First, with the Johnson-Sirleaf government currently streamlining the workforce, which is resulting in increased unemployment, how prepared is the country to provide jobs for the new arrivals? Furthermore, a few of the Liberians who are likely to return have faced difficulties accessing educational opportunities (ineligibility for financial aid) during their tenure in the U.S., and thus may lack the basic skills and competence to compete for jobs when they return. Or, a great number may have acquired skills in the U.S. that may not be easily transferable to Liberia. Additionally, many of the Liberians living in America have been the source of sustaining families in their homeland and neighboring countries that still host many displaced persons. Indeed, if they were forced to leave the U. S. and return to a society where they would be unemployed, sufferings would only soar for them and their families. One also wonders if all these conditions could possibly erode stability, especially in a context where the government is encountering difficulties reducing armed robbery and other violent crimes in Monrovia.

A lot of work still needs to be done: road networks need to be reconstructed, housing is in short supply, the educational system is in shambles, and medical services are reduced to a few dingy clinics. Despite a robust U.N. military and police presence, security remains tenuous with many nervous that the return of even a fraction of the Liberians on TPS would trigger new resettlement, rehabilitation, and safety worries. Liberia’s condition is clearly of concern beyond its own borders. If Liberia is internally secure, all of West Africa will benefit. It becomes easier for the region to address the ongoing unrest in the Ivory Coast, as well as fragile situations in Guinea and Sierra Leone. A stable Liberia is a force for regional stability – a goal the American taxpayers have supported, with over one billion dollars in the last few years.

The sheer enormity of the Liberian plight combined with an over 80 percent unemployment rate is mind-boggling. Although many traditional and online news outlets have reported that some government officials have become nonchalant about the negative ramifications of this issue, I believe the Liberian government just doesn’t have the capacity or the wherewithal to care for all its citizens now.

Liberians on TPS are victims of poor governance, and violations of their liberties by dictators and nefarious predators, many of whom are living in the U.S. and other parts of the Western World unpunished for their crimes. Is the American government prepared to revictimize these Liberians by sending them back to a land where many of them have no homes; where their love ones were maimed and killed; and most importantly, where they have no real emotional attachment? Consider the children that were born in the U.S, who will be left without parents, perhaps in the care of relatives, who might not be financially positioned to care for them. It is no secret that in many minority households, the absence of responsible parents is already taking a toll on families. Is the U. S. government willing to impose this peril on the lives of many young children? There is no better way to describe this situation than to say that the consequences for Liberians are dire and it is my strongest plea that the revocation of the TPS will be reversed so that progress in Liberia cannot be impeded.

The author is a native Liberian and former faculty at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, where for six years he taught courses in African studies. He is now on faculty in the History Department at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. He can be reached via email at or .

© 2006 by The Perspective

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