Thousands of Liberians fear deportation, as citizenship program expires amid backlogs

By Matthew Korfhage

Yatta Kiazolu could barely process the news when she learned she could become an American citizen.

Folded obscurely into the defense authorization budget in December 2019 was a historic provision called “Liberian Refugee Immigrant Fairness.”

Deadlines were short, with heavy paperwork requirements. But the law offered a rare path to citizenship for Liberian refugees who’d been living in uncertainty for decades, after fleeing a pair of brutal and seemingly endless civil wars.

“When it passed the Senate, I still didn't believe it even when they signed it. I just didn't believe it. I was still in a state of preparing for the worst,” Kiazolu said. “When you’ve been living in limbo for that long, you’re always preparing to fight.”

From age 6, Kiazolu had grown up a lot like any other kid in Delaware. She’d played Little League with her cousins, went to Smyrna High, and earned a degree from Delaware State. Yet her passport stubbornly said "Liberia" — the country her parents had escaped before she was even born.

Now, any Liberian who’d lived in the United States continuously since 2014 was eligible to apply for permanent residency — and from there, citizenship.  

But for the majority of an estimated 10,000 eligible Liberian refugees, it hasn’t played out that way.

Instead, the LRIF program was launched into the jaws of a worldwide pandemic.

Amid an uneven rollout, consulate closures and broad mistrust among eligible Liberians, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services accepted just 3,969 applications by last year's Dec. 20 deadline. 

Even among those who managed to navigate the byzantine realities of documenting birth and Liberian citizenship during a pandemic — not to mention pay the $1,225 application fee — towering backlogs mean some applicants have waited as long as two years.

Amid an uneven rollout, consulate closures and broad mistrust among eligible Liberians, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services accepted just 3,969 applications by last year's Dec. 20 deadline. 

Even among those who managed to navigate the byzantine realities of documenting birth and Liberian citizenship during a pandemic — not to mention pay the $1,225 application fee — towering backlogs mean some applicants have waited as long as two years.


 

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