Alliance Member Profile: ACER’s Pathway to Citizenship Campaign

Rally at the Minnesota capitol in 2017

For thousands of Minnesota residents from Liberia, the clock is ticking. Come March 31, 2020, their ability to live and work in the communities they call home could come to an abrupt end.

Organizers and community leaders with African Career, Education and Resource Inc (ACER) are mobilizing to make sure families in the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis — and nationwide — not only keep their immigration status but have a pathway to citizenship.

According to the Embassy of Liberia, 22,000 Liberians live in Minnesota, with the majority residing in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. Many of those residents rely on a little-known program called Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) for the temporary immigration status that allows them to live and work in the United States. Each March that program comes up for a one-year renewal and, in 2017, ACER leaders knew the incoming Trump administration posed an imminent threat.

But instead of propping up a broken system, Denise Butler and her ACER colleagues created a campaign for a permanent solution.

For Butler and so many others, DED and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) are misnomers. There’s nothing temporary about the contributions and communities of Liberians who have lived in the United States for 20 or 25 years. So ACER looked beyond the borders of Minnesota, partnering with national groups like Black Alliance for Just Immigration and UndocuBlack to engage with federal lawmakers to create a bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship.

In November 2017, Butler and ACER leaders took the first of what has become many trips to Washington, D.C. “We flew out with UndocuBlack, and, over a three day process, we did a training with other organizers and created a lobbying vision so that, come March, we’d have a bill that provided a pathway to citizenship,” Butler says. “A lot of legislators didn’t even know what DED was. So we started lobbying for a bill, going to D.C. in November and December and January and February. Then, in March 2018, Trump terminated DED.”

“That meant people had 12 months to literally leave the country,” she explains. “As of 2019, those work permits would expire and they would have no right to work and no status whatsoever. So our lobbying got even more rigorous.”

ACER lobbying delegation with Minnesota Senator Tina Smith

That effort led to the introduction of the American Dream and Promise Act, which would provide Dreamers, TPS and DED holders with protection from deportation and an opportunity to obtain permanent legal status in the United States if they meet certain requirements. To support that bill, ACER has been at the center of a national movement that has brought Liberians from Minnesota, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and other states to the nation’s capital, most recently in February.

“We lobbied and rallied and marched in the rain for miles pushing for the bills and an extension to the wind down [of DED],” she says. “This year, we did get an extension on March 28, so DED is still terminated but we have another 12 months to remain and work legally. In the meantime, I told people, ‘Yes, enjoy the victory. We won this battle. But now the fight is to push these bills to pass.’”

From an organizing perspective, that push has been a significant base builder for ACER. “New community members have become familiarized with the organization, and this new group of folks has risen to leadership, giving their voice to the movement,” Butler says. “There are such remarkable women that I am in awe of. These ladies have been carrying this work.”

ACER leader, Linda Clark

Leaders like Linda Clark, who has been at the forefront of ACER’s work and was a guest of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar at the State of the Union this year. “I left my family during a Civil War in my home country of Liberia nearly 20 years ago,” Clark said. “Because of DED, I have been able to build a life for myself in the country I now call home.”

“Linda is exactly the type of American success story we should celebrate—someone who came to this country seeking a better life, played by the rules and built a life for herself,” Rep. Omar affirmed in a statement.

Leaders like Clark have been building a strong coalition both locally and nationally, not only forming the Black Immigrant Collective but gaining support from political leaders, churches, unions and other organizations. For instance, in early May the Osseo School District is partnering with ACER on a community gathering around supporting DED parents and students. Moving forward, Butler knows that coalition will be critical.

“The [Congressional] session ends in September, so we have the next four or five months to push these bills, otherwise we’re back to asking for an extension,” she says. “We don’t want to keep living in limbo.”

Learn more about ACER’s immigration work here.