By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Thursday extended an immigration designation granting protected status to Liberians in the United States for an additional year, just three days before it was to expire, a rare move from a president who has taken a hardline stance on immigration.
Trump last year ordered an end to Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status for Liberians, which was first granted to them during the presidency of his fellow Republican George W. Bush and enabled the immigrants to work and protected them from deportation. Advocates estimate that roughly 4,000 Liberians in the United States are protected by DED.
Trump had declared a one-year "wind-down" period, which set the final expiration date of the status as March 31. But on Thursday, Trump said he had changed his mind, winning unusual praise from some immigration advocates who have fought his policies in courts during the two years of his presidency.
"Upon further reflection and review, I have decided that it is in the foreign policy interest of the United States to extend the wind-down period for an additional 12 months, through March 30, 2020," Trump said in a memorandum to his secretaries of state and homeland security that was released by the White House.
"The reintegration of DED beneficiaries into Liberian civil and political life will be a complex task, and an unsuccessful transition could strain United States-Liberian relations and undermine Liberia's post-civil war strides toward democracy and political stability," he said.
Trump's administration has sought to eliminate similar programs for other nationalities, such as El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan. In such instances, the administration has argued that the domestic crises that resulted in those immigrants coming to the United States had long ago been resolved, and that it was therefore time for them to return home.
"The Trump administration's decision to extend DED protections for Liberians is the right thing to do," said Avideh Moussavian, legislative director of the National Immigration Law Centre.
Trump noted efforts in Congress to grant Liberians permanent legal status, and said his reprieve "will preserve the status quo while the Congress considers remedial legislation."
A spokesman for Liberia's embassy in the United States, Gabriel Williams, praised the announcement.
"We can say without hesitation that we welcome the news very much," Williams said. "It's a manifestation of the very cordial relationship between the United States and Liberia."
For several months, Liberians and their advocates have been lobbying members of Congress and the White House for a reprieve.
They argued that allowing the status to expire would force people who had lived in the United States for decades and had U.S. citizen children to lose their livelihoods and face the prospect of deportation to a country they left decades ago and which is struggling with a fragile economy and health care system.
A coalition of Liberians with DED status and immigration advocacy groups sued the Trump administration this month in federal court to stop the termination. Amaha Kassa, executive director of African Communities Together, which joined the lawsuit, said they will continue their court action in an effort to learn why the White House terminated the program in the first place.
"We're mindful that this is only a one-year extension of the termination - not a reversal," Kassa said.
Nonetheless, Trump's decision eliminates the "emergency" the Liberians were living under, said Erasmus Williams, a Liberian community leader in Minnesota, which has a large population of Liberians.
"We have ample time now to work through Congress to have legislation passed that will create a pathway to citizenship for Liberians on DED," he said.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Grant McCool)