Former American slaves were moved to Liberia in the 1800s to solve the “problem” of black and white people living alongside each other. Their descendants are facing the same journey.
Afomu Kelley was just 11 years old when she left Liberia with her mother in the early days of a civil war in 1990. She remembers standing in a crowd jostling to board an airplane to the United States for what she thought would be a six-week vacation.
Instead, the war in Liberia escalated and Kelley, now 40, never returned to the West African country. She grew up in Northern Virginia, where she finished high school early, and attended the University of Maryland. She has an American accent. Sometimes she doesn’t feel like an immigrant.
But at the end of this month, she may be forced to return to a homeland she barely remembers.
“It is cruel to tell me that I have to go back to a place that I don’t know,” said Kelley, who lives in Greenbelt, Md., with her daughters, ages 9 and 11. “I don’t even know the street I lived on. But I can tell you every diner between here and New Hampshire.”
For some, Trump’s move to end immigration protection for Liberians echoes a troubling moment in U.S. history, when the land that would become Liberia was colonized by Americans to relocate former slaves and their descendants.
“You’d have to be pretty historically illiterate not to recognize a special relationship between the U.S. and Liberia,” said historian Nicholas Guyatt of the University of Cambridge in England.
The American Colonization Society was founded in 1816 with the goal of voluntarily settling black Americans in West Africa, a plan supported both by some abolitionists and by slaveholders who feared revolts led by free blacks.
The society, while not part of the U.S. government, counted such figures as James Madison and Francis Scott Key as members. It gained influence as consensus grew among the American elite that colonization was needed to solve the “problem” of black and white people living alongside each other. In 1822, Liberia was founded.
The society ultimately failed in its goal to deport most black Americans, whom co-founder Henry Clay said “never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country.” Still, thousands of African Americans, drawn by the promise of economic freedom and self-governance, crossed the Atlantic to settle Liberia by the end of the 1800s.
They were Americans in every respect, having lived in the United States for most or all of their lives. They lived apart from the Africans in the area, about whom they knew little, and experienced high mortality rates from disease in the tropical climate.
But the American Colonization Society believed that black Americans were more closely bonded to a land based on their race rather than their lived experience.
“Fundamentally, they saw the United States as a white man’s country,” said Jeannette Jones, a history professor at the University of Nebraska. “One impetus behind creating the society was to settle the question of whether free blacks could be citizens, and the decisive answer was no.”
Among the black Americans who moved to Liberia in the 1800s was Kelley’s great-great-grandfather, John Jenkins Morris.
Now Kelley is facing the prospect of the same journey.
It would be her first time outside of the United States since taking that transatlantic flight with her mother in 1990. She worries about safety and a lack of jobs in Liberia. She has a chronic health condition and fears that Liberia’s shaky health system means she couldn’t live there long.
Above all, she worries about uprooting her two young daughters, who are U.S. citizens. For a time, she considered having them stay with relatives in the Midwest, but she says she can’t stand the idea of leaving them behind.
Her daughter Eliel, 11, said she identifies as African American, not Liberian.
When Kelley recently went to the Liberian Embassy for a passport, the consular official didn’t believe she was Liberian, citing her American accent. Kelley works as an oncology nurse, and she says most of her patients assume she’s American, too.
She calls herself a “foodie” and worries about having to leave the U.S. before the final season of “Game of Thrones” airs.
“I just feel like I’m an American, for all intents and purposes,” she said.
In Liberia, descendants of the black Americans who settled the colony have held onto their roots, maintaining elements of U.S. culture and values. The nation’s capital, Monrovia, was named after the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe.
The country became independent in 1847. But the political system remained dominated by Americo-Liberian elites, creating tension with indigenous Liberians and laying the groundwork for devastating civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s.
President George H.W. Bush granted Liberians immigration protection in 1991 under “temporary protected status,” which allows migrants displaced by war, disease or natural disasters to temporarily live and work in the United States. When TPS expired in 1999, President Bill Clinton extended the protection in the form of “deferred enforced departure.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, the Democrat who represents Kelley’s Maryland district, called Trump’s decision to end DED “callous and extremely unfortunate.”
The Trump administration argues that the end of Liberia’s second civil war in 2003 eliminated the need for immigration protection for Liberians. Trump has also taken aim at other temporary immigration programs, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which shields from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
The age limit for DACA was set at 31 when it was established in 2012, making Kelley two years too old to qualify.
“It’s past time for Congress to take action on comprehensive immigration reform,” Hoyer said.
Speaking at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, the panel’s top Republican expressed sympathy with DED and TPS holders but warned that such a comprehensive bill would not get past the GOP-controlled Senate.
“I’m one from my side of the aisle that wants to see this fixed,” said Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), “but we’ve also got to understand that simply putting something forward that will die as soon as it is voted out of the House is not a fix.”
Kelley hopes Congress will find a way to save DED before it expires, but she, too, worries that a bill without Republican support will be held up in partisan gridlock while the program ends in less than a month.
“I understand that people that are not like-minded are also here, and their voices deserve to be heard,” she said. “There has to be a way to compromise.”