- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Alexander Collins has two homes: a new one in the U.S. where he wants to stay and one in Africa he wants to leave for good.

Collins, 34, has lived in St. Paul, Minn. on a series of temporary extensions since coming to the U.S. from Liberia about eight years ago. He said he was aware his status was 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 granted temporary protected status to settle in the U.S. while civil war ravaged their homeland. The war has ended and a fledgling democracy is taking hold. So President George W. Bush granted a final 18-month extension, which ends 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 people like Collins who are primary 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 remain hopeful that President Barack Obama will grant an additional 18-month extension in hopes that 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 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.”

People under this designation 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.

There are currently six countries with Temporary Protected Status: Burundi, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan. Burundi’s designation is set to expire May 2; 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.

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 remains tenuous, however.

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.”

___

On the Net:

Background on Temporary Protected Status: http://tinyurl.com/yrtccp

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