FARGO — "Worried." "Fearful." Those are words used by Fargo-Moorhead-area community leaders when talking about immigration policy changes coming from President Donald Trump's administration.
Among the many changes, one that has many concerned is the number and pace at which countries are having their temporary protected status taken away.
"It's a big challenge to us as a community," said Christian Harris, executive director of the New American Consortium here.
Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, is a designation given to countries who are going through wars, experiencing an outbreak of disease or a natural disaster, or any other extraordinary but temporary condition.
TPS protects individuals from the designated nation, and those given the status are eligible for employment and cannot be detained because of their immigrant status.
Temporary status is a distinct designation from other immigration statuses, said Kit Johnson, associate professor of immigration law at North Dakota State University.
Immigrant statuses like green card holders, refugee status and H-1B visas are better than TPS, which is temporary and doesn't provide a direct path for citizenship, she said. For example, work done by Lutheran Social Services deals exclusively with refugees and resettlement.
TPS is a program that protects foreign nationals by not sending them back to a country incapable of supporting them due to extraordinary circumstances.
According to data from National Immigration Forum, more than 300,000 foreign nationals are now in the U.S. on TPS. But following recent Department of Homeland Security decisions, people from six nations — Sudan, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Nepal and Honduras — find themselves with a deadline to go back to their home country.
It's unclear how many people under TPS live in Fargo, but the area does have relatively large populations of Liberians, Sudanese, South Sudanese and Somali, as well as Central American immigrants.
"It has sent a wave of fear in the minds of people," Harris said.
Harris, now an American citizen, originally came from Liberia in 2000. Many Liberians came to escape war or, more recently, the Ebola disease outbreak, he said.
Liberia was officially taken off TPS in 2016 but stayed on under Deferred Enforced Departure, the only country with that designation, which is set to expire in 2019.
Harris said many people who watch that deadline have jobs, families and children who were born in the United States. Harris estimates about 3,000 Liberians live in Fargo.
Even though Liberia is no longer at war, it is not in any shape to welcome back the many thousands who are required to return, he said. High levels of poverty, poor educational systems and medical institutions, and government corruption make accommodating this influx of people challenging, he said.
Matuor Alier, executive director of Elim Lutheran Church in Fargo, said many Liberians simply don't want to go back because of the poor conditions awaiting them.
Alier and Hukun Abdullahi, executive director of the Afro-American Development Center, a Moorhead nonprofit, said many immigrants who have jobs here send money back to support family members.
"What's happening when you send back 10,000 people who are helping another 10,000," said Abdullahi, a Somali business student at Minnesota State University Moorhead and a green card holder.
Syria and South Sudan were given an extension through September 2019. Yemen and Somalia have deadlines still coming in 2018, with a key Homeland Security Secretary decision expected in July.
Alier, an American citizen who is originally from South Sudan, said even though South Sudan remains on the list, the country cannot handle the number of people needing to go back if the status changes. Alier estimates more than 3,000 South Sudanese live in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
"Going back there is like going nowhere," Alier said.
Countries whose TPS status is eliminated have a delayed deadline date to accommodate the transition. Sudan's deadline is in November 2018, with Nicaragua, Nepal, Haiti and El Salvador ending at various dates in 2019. Honduran nationals under TPS have until January 2020.
Even with countries losing TPS, people can find ways to stay through visa sponsorships from family members or employers, NDSU's Johnson said.
With six countries taken off TPS in two years, Johnson said she was not surprised by the pace at which designations were terminated, but she was "disappointed." Many of the countries with TPS survived multiple presidencies and the State Department warned the Trump administration about the impact sending people back can have, she said.
Harris said the New American Consortium has plans to hold seminars in the coming weeks to help people understand the TPS process and what their options are.
Johnson said TPS is a flexible and malleable program, with a country being granted the status at any time. But, she said, there is not enough political will to change current decisions.