Momolu Bongay was in his 40s when he left his home country of Liberia to live in Worcester, Massachusetts. Now, almost two decades later, facing deportation, he’s fighting to stay.
“We have been here so long,” Bongay said. “We don’t want to go back and start all over. That’s why I say: Please, let me stay here.”
Bongay is one of around 4,000 Liberian nationals who have been living in the United States under a nearly 20-year-old program originally designed to grant temporary residency to those fleeing the civil wars in Liberia that killed more than 300,000 people. The Trump Administration announced in March 2018 that it was ending the program — known as Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) — arguing Liberia was now safe for them to return to.
But lawyers for Bongay and 14 other Liberian plaintiffs, who will have to leave the country by March 2020, say the president’s decision to end the program is based on racial animus — not facts.
“The president and the administration have expressed repeatedly racial bias against black people generally and African immigrants, specifically,” said Oren Nimni, a staff lawyer at Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston who is working on the case.
“It seems like race was one of the motivating factors for canceling this program, and that's flatly unconstitutional,” he said.
Most of the Liberians with DED status first came to the U.S. in the late 1990s or early 2000s. In the decades they have been living in the U.S., their home country has struggled to rebound from war, undergoing one of history’s worst Ebola pandemics in 2014.
During his time in Worcester, Bongay has worked as a delivery truck driver, a teacher and a care worker in nursing and group homes. He supports his wife and their 4-year-old daughter.
Bongay said nine of his family members died of Ebola during the 2014 pandemic in Liberia, and that he would not have support if he was deported back there. Before coming to the U.S. during Liberia’s second civil war, which lasted from 1999 to 2003, Bongay endured a beating by rebels that left him blinded in one eye. He believes that if he goes back, he will be targeted.
“I’m afraid for my life,” Bongay said. “If we go back there, they’re going to hunt us, especially because we’re coming from America.”
Ending a 20-year-old program
Lawyers representing Bongay and other DED holders went before a U.S. district court judge in Worcester on Oct. 9, arguing that the case should move forward after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion to dismiss it.
The Department of Justice lawyers argued that Trump’s decision is valid because conditions in Liberia have markedly improved from when the program started, making an extension unnecessary.
In his motion to dismiss the lawsuit, DOJ lawyer Joshua Kolsky said the United Nations closed its humanitarian mission in Liberia in March 2018 after 14 years of operation because conditions had improved significantly since the end of the second civil war. That was the same month that Trump first made his decision to end the program.
In court documents, Kolsky quoted several of the UN secretary-general’s glowing remarks on current conditions in Liberia. “Liberia has had a remarkable journey of transformation … and is on the cusp of a new era that promises greater inclusiveness and equitable participation of all Liberian citizens in the political and economic space,” Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in a 2018 final progress report on the UN mission in Liberia.
Lawyers for the Liberian plaintiffs argued that although conditions are better now than they were on the heels of the country’s second civil war, there are still significant problems for people living in Liberia — such as rampant poverty, violence and lack of medical care. According to the CIA, Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Over half of its population lives in abject poverty, with some of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates and high rates of infectious diseases.
The attorneys claim that the DOJ’s stated reasons for discontinuing the program are not genuine, and believe that the real motivation is the race of DED holders. They say evidence of a discriminatory agenda by the Trump administration is abundant, and terminating the DED program based on race is unconstitutional.
In court documents, lawyers say the decision to end the program is “part of an overarching immigration agenda by the Trump Administration to forcibly remove non-white, non-European immigrant families from the United States.”
Nimni said he believes that racial animus is the only explanation that makes sense.
“The decision has no other explanation,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense in the course of regular immigration policy or looking at the country conditions on the ground in Liberia where there is poverty and violence and lack of medical care. Any normal policymaker or rational decision maker would have continued out this humanitarian program.”
Nimni said the UN's decision to pull out of Liberia is besides the point when it comes to the DED program. Considering the poverty and other challenges still facing Liberia, he said, the country is not in a position to safely re-introduce Liberians who have been living in the U.S.
Nimni’s argument also includes a litany of racist statements made by Trump, including his reportedly referring to some African nations as "shithole countries" and reportedly expressing a preference for immigrants from majority-white nations, like Norway, in January 2018.
Liberians were originally given DED status by President Bill Clinton in 1999, and since then, the program was extended by subsequent presidents, both Democrats and Republicans. Trump’s decision ends the nearly 20-year precedent.
Lacking a long-term strategy
Trump’s termination of DED is in line with his overarching style of immigration policy, said David Leblang, a professor of politics and public policy at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Miller Center for Public Affairs.
“Trump's been pretty consistent in making a statement that we are going to close our borders, and we're not going to be welcoming of people who are in need,” said Leblang, citing the Trump administration's 2017 travel ban against five Muslim-majority countries and the recently struck down "public charge law" introduced by Trump, which aimed to bar immigrants who would rely on public programs.
“[The Trump administration] doesn't care so much about conditions on the ground,” said Leblang. “They're trying to decrease the ability of foreign-born people to enter and remain in the United States.”
However, Leblang said, this case brings into focus an inherent issue with DED and similar programs, like Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Because these programs lack a pathway to citizenship, they were never designed to be long-term immigration strategies. Rather, they were meant to delay deportation in the short term. They were emergency measures while home countries like Liberia, Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras underwent war, pandemic or environmental catastrophe.
“DED status is supposed to be temporary status,” said Leblang. “It’s designed to connote this notion of temporary-ness, which implies that at some point in time, you will you will lose that status, and you will either have to go back to your homeland or go to another country.”
While the program may be designed to discourage people from staying in the U.S. for more than a few years, that’s not the experience of many of its holders — like Bongay and the other Liberian plaintiffs in the lawsuit — who have started families, and built communities and homes for themselves in the U.S.
Ending it after 20 years, without a pathway to citizenship, is cruel, said Leblang.
“Harmful is an understatement,” he said. “It's tragic for the people affected. And it's very harmful for the communities.”
Leblang said, as with the estimated 10.5 million undocumented people living in the U.S., finding a solution to for the 4,000 Liberians living without secured long-term status requires comprehensive bipartisan immigration legislation that determines the fate of immigrants who have lived in limbo for decades without a pathway to citizenship. By continuously extending these programs without that pathway, he said, previous presidents have kicked the can down the road.
Leblang said comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the plight of immigrants in limbo has proved politically impossible in recent decades — and it now seems farther away than ever.
"Bush tried it, Obama tried it. Trump said, 'Forget it,'" he said.
In the coming months, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Hillman will consider the Department of Justice’s motion to dismiss the case against the Trump administration.
Over 2,000 Liberians live in the Worcester area, and Nimni estimates around 100 of them are DED holders.
Around 70 members of Worcester’s Liberian community crowded into the federal courthouse in early October to support Bongay and the other plaintiffs, who came from all over the U.S.
Bongay said he feels supported by the Liberian community in Worcester, a city that has been home for 18 years.
“The Liberians are together,” he said. “Every time one cries, another one cries. If my brother is suffering, then I’m suffering, too. This is how we are.”