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Nancy Green: Liberians in Rhode Island deserve a path to citizenship



Today I ‘liked’ a Facebook post from Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse:

“Happy Liberian Independence Day! Rhode Island has a vibrant Liberian community that has contributed so much to our state. I remain committed to passing Senator Jack Reed’s bill to create a path to citizenship for these families.”

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the comments were full of rants about the “illegals” and asking what have Liberian immigrants done for Rhode Island.

Well, the relationship between the United States and Liberia is so deep and intertwined and tragic that it’s beyond the scope of this nurse to write about. Especially if moral responsibility is off limits to discuss and we must reduce everything to sound bites and short term gains.

But it’s worth noting that the president who continues to campaign on building a Wall and limiting asylum just signed a resolution stating, “The overall situation in West Africa remains concerning, and Liberia is an important regional partner for the United States.”

And has extended temporary protected status to March, 2020.

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Clearly, there is something to gain by renewing the legal status of Liberians in the United States.

One gain is the important work that Liberian immigrants are doing in health care. Like my immigrant great-grandmother, who was an Irish maid, and my grandfather, who was an Irish cop, people go where the jobs are. Health care is very labor-intensive, especially in direct care. When I started out as a nurse’s aide, about all you had to do was show up breathing and you could get a job in a nursing home. After an unfortunate incident in 1990, (see: A Nursing Home Horror Story) the state tightened up regulations.

It takes 100 hours of classroom and clinical education and a passing grade on the exam to get certified to do a job that is physically and emotionally demanding and not well paid. The upside is that you don’t need a lot of formal education to get started and there is opportunity for advancement. Some of the jobs have flexible hours. Caregiving is a universal need and many people starting out in paid caregiving have great life experience and are very qualified before they ever enter a classroom.

I wonder sometimes where we would be if all the Liberians on temporary protected status left the state tomorrow, all the CNA’s and med techs and nurses and home care workers. We’d probably have to call in the National Guard to fill the empty shifts. When I hear talk about merit-based immigration, I think that those who give compassionate care to those most in need with little recognition and low pay have shown their merit many times over, for decades.

Building a path to citizenship for Liberians on protected status and others who are filling an important need is a win for those of us lucky enough to have never experienced civil war or statelessness. Rhode Island has a rapidly aging population and we will need expanded support systems including more direct care workers.

I hope that by next year we will have made progress on a path to citizenship for Liberians and others who are contributing in many ways to our security and prosperity. They should have a chance to get secure status and not have to live from deadline to deadline.

The history of the United States and Liberia is a unique relationship and a tangle of connections. There are many survivors of the civil war in Rhode Island whose right it is to bear witness if and when they choose. These are some online resources for learning more.

For more about the founding of Liberia by Americans, back in the early 1800’s when white people thought ‘send them back’ was a great idea, read this. Short version- it didn’t work out that well. You can’t send people back to a place they’ve never been, for one. Also, there were people living there already who were not agreeable to giving up their land to arriving Americans.

More on Liberians in Rhode Island, here.

Firestone Tires has gotten its rubber from a vast 200 square mile plantation in Liberia since the 1920’s. They have a 99 year lease. They just laid off 800 workers.

Firestone management failed to take action when a vicious dictator rose to power in Liberia, and he used the corporation to enhance his power. Charles Taylor, now a convicted war criminal, also had connections with the CIA.

And with American religious – whatever you call him – Pat Robertson, who hoped to mine gold in Liberia, Charles Taylor got ambitious and carried out atrocities in neighboring Sierra Leone, looking to seize gold and diamonds. Blood diamonds.

The book, Mississippi in Africa by Charles Huffman is very good and includes connections to Rhode Island. Small world.

About the Author

Nancy Green has lived in Providence since the Blizzard of '78. She writes in time off from the day job in community health. She is grateful to live in a city with coffee places you can walk to.

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