President Trump appears to have issued a holiday gift to Liberian nationals on Dec. 20, 2019, by signing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020. Companies employing Liberian nationals may view this as a possible means of assisting those employees and thus enhancing the stability of their workforce.
Section 7611 of the Act, known as Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness (LRIF), provides a way for Liberians to become “green card” holders (permanent residents) if they meet certain (and rather broad) eligibility conditions. Once granted permanent resident status, they can apply for citizenship without having to wait an additional five years. The NDAA also applies to Afghan interpreters and certain immigrant service members and their families
The 1980 military coup brought the first wave of Liberian refugees to The United States, who offered them a temporary legal status and protection from deportation. The 1989 civil war, which lasted over 14 years, brought thousands more. This was similar to the types of humanitarian protection the U.S. has offered through the years to nationals of other countries escaping war or natural disasters, some of which continue today.
The protections afforded to these groups are designed to be temporary until the crisis in the home country abates. Congress must reevaluate and reauthorize the temporary status on a regular basis, thereby requiring that these refugees must re-register every year or two. Naturally, the uncertainty of all this has created great anxiety for those who have no other means of remaining here legally.
Now, the LRIF’s permanent resident status program will provide stability to thousands of Liberian nationals. USCIS has begun accepting applications and will do so until December 20, 2020.
Although clarification from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) on some of the criteria listed in the LRIF is needed, there appear to be relatively few requirements or restrictions. The statutory language does not allow USCIS any discretion in approving the application if the applicant is eligible.
Moreover, a spouse, child or unmarried son or daughter of someone who meets the eligibility requirements also can file for benefits, even if they do not meet the same requirements as the main applicant.
The Liberian applicant must:
Have been in the U.S. since November 20, 2014 up to the time of filing
Though this requirement is called, “continuous presence”, it appears that short-term absences from the U.S. would not disqualify an applicant as long as the time spent out of the U.S. does not exceed 180 days.
It is not yet known what proof of continuous presence the USCIS will accept. Using past legalization programs as guidance, documents such as school or employment records, credit card statements, medical records, statements from credible people such as teachers or pastors, past correspondence to a U.S. address, or passport entries might all be useful as documentation of continuous presence.
Be eligible to receive an immigrant visa and be admissible to the U.S.
Certain actions that bar other applicants from applying for, or receiving, a green card do not apply to applicants under LRIF. Thus, overstaying a legal entry, using public assistance or benefits, or entering the U.S. without permission will not disqualify an applicant.
Importantly, Liberians already in removal or deportation proceedings or who have an order of removal from an immigration judge can still apply for permanent residency. However, if USCIS does ultimately deny the permanent resident application, the person can still be removed or deported.
Not fall into one of the excluded categories
An applicant is ineligible if they:
- Have been convicted of an aggravated felony (as that term is defined by immigration law, not necessarily criminal law).
- Have persecuted others.
- Have been convicted of two or more crimes involving moral turpitude (as that term is defined by immigration law).
Deadline for Filing
There is only a one-year window so all applications must be submitted by December 20, 2020.
While limits on immigration and residency have dominated the headlines recently, this is a program that actually expands the rights and opportunities for certain refugee groups. Employers with Liberian employees should consider whether and to what extent they wish to assist their employees in seeking enhanced and more stable status in the United States.
Sonseere H. Goldenberg has joined Felhaber Larson and practices in the areas of U.S. immigration and nationality law. She has over 30 years of immigration experience successfully helping families and business achieve their immigration goals.