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End-of-Year Legislation Includes Many Losses—And One Historic Gain

The Congressional spending deal failed on many human rights priorities; however, a related defense bill did secure a major win for Liberian immigrants facing deportation.

By Josh Leach on December 24, 2019

As Congress raced to enact a spending deal before December 20 to avert a government shutdown, the bills they approved gave little cause to celebrate. The $1.4 trillion appropriations package Congress sent to the President’s desk on December 20 not only failed to provide protections for immigrants facing the loss of their legal status; it actually increased overall budgetary authority for agencies that detain and deport migrants. These are the same agencies responsible for implementing some of the most abusive immigration policies of recent history, including family separation.

Among the spending deal’s failures of leadership, it:

  • Does not extend protections for immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), leaving them at risk of losing their status before the next Congress has a chance to create a path to permanent residency.
  • Does not eliminate funding for the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program or its third-country agreements with Central American governments, all of which unlawfully return asylum-seekers to dangerous conditions.
  • Increases funding for immigration enforcement agencies and the U.S. Marshals Service: agencies that have been used to indefinitely detain asylum-seekers, confine children in horrific conditions, separate families, and criminally prosecute people for crossing the border to seek safety.
  • Fails to place any limits on the transfer authority of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), meaning that individual agencies can continue to raid other accounts in order to detain immigrants at rates even higher than those set by Congress.

In these ways, the FY2020 spending deal amounts to a blank check for the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies, many of which are in flagrant violation of international law and core human rights principles.

In a separate but related defense authorization bill, meanwhile—enacted the same week— Congress passed up several other critical opportunities to defend human rights. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to sanction Burmese military officials responsible for crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, the final version of the NDAA was missing this important accountability measure. Negotiators also stripped provisions to reverse Trump’s discriminatory transgender military ban and to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Buried deep in the text of an otherwise disappointing NDAA, however, was one life-saving measure. The version of the bill ultimately passed and signed into law included, for the first time, a path to citizenship for Liberians who have benefited from Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), a humanitarian reprieve from deportation similar to TPS. This new NDAA provision offers stability and safety for nearly 4,000 people who have been living in the United States for decades, after civil war ravaged their home country, and whose status the Trump administration has attempted to terminate.

While Liberian DED holders represent less than one percent of the total number of people the Trump administration has placed at risk of deportation through canceling temporary protections, their victory in securing permanent residency is an important milestone. The Liberian NDAA provision represents the first time Congress has created a path to regularization for formerly undocumented immigrants in the United States in nearly two decades. Liberian DED holders are also the first of any groups facing the loss of temporary status due to Trump administration decisions to win a path to permanent residency.

This victory was due to the tireless advocacy of directly-impacted immigrant communities, including UUSC’s partner the UndocuBlack Network, as well as the leadership of Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Tina Smith (D-MN), who worked to ensure permanent residency for Liberian DED holders was included in the NDAA. UUSC advocates have also taken action to call for a path to permanent status for DED holders. This victory offers a model to build on, as we continue the struggle for permanent protections for all communities and nationalities threatened with the loss of immigration status.

As we approach the end of 2019, we mourn the missed opportunities for congressional leadership displayed in this year’s spending negotiations, as well as the many lives that will be lost or damaged because of ongoing harmful U.S. policies. We also draw courage and strength, however, from the many Liberian immigrants and allies who fought successfully for their rights, and from the more peaceful and happy holiday season they will now be able to enjoy with their families and communities.

Photo Credit: Jessica Gamble, Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church, Pasadena, CA

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About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

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