WASHINGTON — Alexander Collins has two homes: A new one that he hopes never to leave, and an ancestral one that he would like to leave behind for good.
Collins, 34, has lived in St. Paul, Minn., on a series of temporary extensions since coming to the United States from Liberia about eight years ago. He said he’s always been aware his status is temporary, but he rarely contemplated what might happen when it ended.
“My life is here,” he said. “My family is here. So it is very hard to consider what going home would mean.”
Collins is among 3,600 Liberians who were granted temporary protected status to settle in the United States while civil war ravaged their West African homeland. The war has ended in Liberia, and with a fledgling democracy taking hold there, one last 18-month extension granted by then-President George W. Bush is due to expire March 31.
For Collins, that could mean being uprooted from his job, his ministry and the place where he and his wife are raising their three children.
“Now it is so close, and we have a lot of uncertainty,” Collins said. “This is approaching very quickly and we do not know if I can stay. We have a lot of fears about what it will mean.”
More than 250,000 Liberians live in the United States, with large concentrations in the Carolinas, Georgia, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
Kerper Dwanyen, the president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, said the 3,600 who have temporary protected status might seem small, but it represents a disproportionate number of heads of households, like Collins, who serve as the top providers for their families in both countries. Many have been in the United States as long as 15 years, he said.
Advocates for the affected Liberians hope President Barack Obama will grant another 18-month extension so a solution granting permanent residency can be worked out in Congress.
No decision has been made on another extension, said Chris Rhatigan, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Temporary Protected Status, she said, was never meant to be a permanent solution.
“People who are granted this status know this,” she said. “It’s designed so that, if there’s an armed conflict and you have to get out temporarily, you can. You know you’ll eventually go home.”
Whether an extension is granted, the Liberians’ situation underscores what some say is the paradox of the system. People uprooted from countries because of violence can legally settle in the United States but must do so knowing they could be sent home to a far different life at any time.
“It is always a tough call ending Temporary Protected Status,” said Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “At some point, the Department of Homeland Security has to make a judgment as to whether it’s safe for people to go back.”
People under Temporary Protected Status have the same avenues to citizenship as other immigrants, Rhatigan said, but if the status ends before the immigration process is complete, returning to their home country is usually the only legal option.
Six countries currently have Temporary Protected Status: Burundi, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan. Burundi’s designation is set to expire May 2, and about 300 Somalis could be forced to leave in September, when their designation ends.
Though there are tens of thousands of Somalis living the United States, most entered under a designation other than Temporary Protected Status.
“In large measure it hasn’t come up on the radar yet because it is six months away,” said Abdi Samatar, professor and the head of the geography department at the University of Minnesota. “For those who know, there’s quite a bit of concern … that if they are going to be sent back, there’s no place for them to go where they can be free of random violence and targeted violence.”
The fragility in Somalia contrasts with Liberia, where there have been more concrete signs of progress and stability. After a series of coups and consistent violence beginning in 1980, an August 2003 peace accord led to two years of rule by a transitional government and a democratic election in late 2005 that brought President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to power.
The situation is tenuous, though. According to the CIA’s “The World Factbook,” security in Liberia is fragile and rebuilding its economy and social institutions will take years. Advocates also note Liberian unemployment is close to 85 percent, there is limited electricity and the country relies heavily on United Nations forces for security.
Liberians have strong support in Congress, particularly in Minnesota’s delegation. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and more than 30 other lawmakers signed a letter in December asking Obama to grant an extension.
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., appealed for an extension from the House floor, saying that Liberia “is simply not ready to absorb the number of people who will be forced to leave the United States if this deadline is not extended.”
For Collins, returning to Liberia would cost him everything he’s carved out for himself in St. Paul. He owns a house and is working toward a master’s degree while running a fledgling ministry with his wife. Their church, founded three years ago, now has more than 100 worshippers.
Without him, Collins says, his home could face foreclosure and his family would be left to scrape by.
“I don’t want to consider this,” he said. “I will do what I need to do, this is the reality, but it is almost too much to think about.”