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Ebola scare over, Liberian immigrants lose right to stay in U.S.

Four years ago, Tenneh Harris, a divorced midwife from Liberia, came to the United States on a 90-day visitor visa but never returned to her West African home. Of America's estimated 11.2 million immigrants who are here illegally, 40 percent become undocumented in the same way, by overstaying visas.

Four years ago, Tenneh Harris, a divorced midwife from Liberia, came to the United States on a 90-day visitor visa but never returned to her West African home. Of America's estimated 11.2 million immigrants who are here illegally, 40 percent become undocumented in the same way, by overstaying visas.

Harris, however, had one thing on her side: the Ebola contagion.

The 2014-2015 epidemic that ravaged Liberia made her eligible for a humanitarian program of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which deferred her deportation and gave her permission to work. After paying the $515 application fee, she obtained Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Presto, she was documented again.

Since then, Ebola in West Africa has abated. Now, Liberians like Harris are being told they must leave the U.S. by May 21 - the day their work permits expire, and they become undocumented again.

They are among thousands of West African immigrants across the Philadelphia area, and tens of thousands nationwide, whose lives here have been plunged into uncertainty and fear by two events: a declaration by U.S. officials that their homelands no longer pose a danger; and the election of a president who made thinning the country of undocumented immigrants a pillar of his campaign.

Liberians are the region's largest African immigrant group. In 2010, the Census counted about 8,000 in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, although community leaders' estimates are closer to 15,000. In 2015, according to a Census estimate, 6,500 lived in New Jersey.

Guineans and Sierra Leoneons on Ebola-related TPS are smaller populations but are in the same boat as the Liberians, with the same deadline to depart.

Married now to a legal permanent resident, Harris, 45, lives in Philadelphia, is employed by a home health-care agency in Swedesboro, puts in 12-hour shifts, and pays taxes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She sends money home to pay school fees and support her four children, who live with her sister and get by, Harris said, on one meal a day.

"I knew it was temporary," she said at the Philadelphia office of the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA), a multi-service support group where she is counseled by social workers and lawyers. "But I felt I had to start somewhere to help myself and my kids.

"There's no more Ebola, but our country is not safe. Here, if I dial 911, police come to my door. In Liberia, they tell you they don't have gas for the patrol car to come to your rescue."

As undocumented immigrants await the first moves of the Trump administration, many Liberians with expiring protective statuses are scrambling to see if they can adjust their immigration status ahead of the deadline.

Frances Doe, 55, came to the U.S. in 2011 on a visitor visa and lived with her sister in Philadelphia. She said she lost three children to stray-bullet violence and cholera in Liberia. In 2015, she was granted TPS. She works now at a food-processing plant in South Jersey, second shift, 1 to 9 p.m.

Doe's 28-year-old daughter lives nearby and has a green card. If the daughter becomes a naturalized citizen, she could petition for her mother to be legally admitted, but that, Doe says, is a thin hope as the deadline nears.

"To be undocumented here, right now, is very, very, very risky. I am asking the government of America and God in heaven to do something," she said. "I'm talking with tears in my eyes."

Born in Liberia, Wilson Cisco, 43, came to the U.S. in 2014 and got TPS. He is a personal-care aide, lives in West Chester, and recently married a U.S. citizen, which he hopes will put him on track for a green card and citizenship. But he has empathy for others who fear they will be hunted by immigration enforcement if they don't leave.

A lot of the questions about what to do come to Voffee Jabateh, director of ACANA. He estimates his office has handled 100 TPS applications since 2015. "People are traumatized," he said. "When folks come to me, I ask: Do you have a child who is an American? A husband? Special skills? We go through the list of what is likely to give us a reason to apply for adjustment of status."

ACANA also has been the locus of meetings, including one of about 30 people last week, on "what we can do to mobilize a reconsideration," said Jabateh. "Our community is meeting to strategize."

Established in 1990, TPS is granted to eligible foreign nationals if the secretary of homeland security determines that war, epidemic, or natural disaster prevents a safe return to their countries.

Other countries currently designated for TPS are El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Immigrants are ineligible if they have been convicted of any felony or two or more misdemeanors committed in the United States. Engaging in or inciting terrorist activity also is a bar.

To be eligible for residency and a work permit, the person must apply to USCIS from inside the U.S., present proof of nationality, and supply fingerprints and other identifying information. If denied, the case can be appealed to an immigration judge.

The end of TPS for affected West Africans is happening now because Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in September determined that the "widespread transmission" of the Ebola virus in those countries is over, making it safe to return.

Years ago, some Liberians were granted TPS because of the two civil wars that wreaked havoc on the country from 1989 to 2003. When the George W. Bush administration ended its TPS in 2007, it cited compelling foreign policy reasons to grant them a new status called Deferred Enforced Departure, or DED, which has allowed civil war-affected TPS recipients to remain in America. They are not immediately affected by Johnson's determination.

Ebola-related TPS recipients are hoping for their own DED-style reprieve but aren't counting on it.

"The U.S. helped us, but now it's putting us back in a bad situation" said Thomas, 37, who feared making himself a target for deportation, and asked that his last name not be published.

"The fear is authentic, especially if you listen to the rhetoric of the future administration," said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, a Pennsylvania State University law professor and immigration expert.

"One sliver of this population may have a basis for adjustment," she said. "But at the end of the day, these are individuals with compelling circumstances, which gave them protection in the first place.

"Many have built ties and families here," she said, and could be considered for another reprieve.