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Last week Tuesday, President Trump decided to “wind down” programs which had protected some Liberians from deportation since 1991. In recent months, Trump has ended such programs for other “shithole” countries like El Salvador and Haiti. Trump was talking about these exact programs when he made that comment.
The programs were originally extended to Liberians because of a brutal civil war, and later the devastation of Ebola. I have personally seen the effects of both. As a professor at Calvin College, I worked with colleagues to build capacity at the first social work program in the nation of Liberia, and later to help that institution respond to Ebola.
There are about 4,000 Liberians in the United States through the programs, which granted the ability to work (and pay taxes), but not a green card or pathway to citizenship. They will have a year to leave. We should let them stay.
Economically, deporting them would be nonsense, for all of the usual reasons. Dr. Bruce Corrie is the director of Planning and Economic Development in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where many Liberians in the program live. As he says in this PRI article, these Liberians “are doing some very tough work that ordinary Americans don’t want to do.” Many of them (up to 26%) in the medical field, working as nurses, certified nursing assistants, and medical assistants. Immigrants are a blessing, not a burden.
Biblically, deportation is difficult to square with passages like Leviticus 19:34, or with Deuteronomy 24:17 “You shall not deprive a resident alien… of justice… Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.”
The heart of the issue, however, is history.
What makes Trump’s decision particularly galling is the United States’ relationship to Liberia, a country it created from whole cloth to try to rid itself of free blacks in the 1820s.
Liberia, or “the land of the free,” started as a fiction perpetrated by force on the people of a strip of land on the West African coast by the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS was itself the creation of some very wealthy, white, Christian men. It was founded by a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey, Robert Finley, but its original organizers included Bushrod Washington (a Supreme Court Justice and George’s nephew) and Henry Clay (John Quincy Adam’s Secretary of State). It had the support of U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe (hence the capital, “Monrovia”).
Even old honest Abe was a fan of the idea of colonization (albeit in what is now Belize). In 1862 Lincoln said to Congress “I cannot make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization.” Colonization was seen as an answer for the problem of free blacks in the North, and as a way to persuade the reluctant to consider emancipation. It deliberately avoided the central question: chattel slavery. From the beginning, those with eyes to see saw this for what it was. As Frederick Douglass said in 1849, the “wrinkled old ‘red herring’ of colonization.”
The civil war that prompted Liberians to flee to America in 1991 was a direct outgrowth of the colonial legacy America thrust onto the Liberian people, as the 95% of the population that was indigenous finally rose up against the 5% ruling “Americo-Liberian” class that had dominated Liberia until 1980. I spoke yesterday with Alfield Reeves, whose family fled to Grand Rapids, MI, during the war. As he told me, President Trump isn’t “really thinking about the repercussions, casualties and lives that will drastically be affected… It’s really another tactic for him to ‘make America great again’ by ridding it of people who in turn have really made this country great.”
Let’s return to Deuteronomy 24. God says to treat the resident alien with justice because “you were a slave in Egypt.” He says to remember that.
What would it look like to remember that the ancestors of some of those we will now deport were brought to these very shores as slaves?
The ACS started as the project of a Presbyterian pastor. The Reformed tradition has had a troubled history with race (to put it mildly). Recently, however, I was listening to three Presbyterian thought leaders talk about reparations. The theologian Ekemini Uwan, the pastor Michelle Higgins, and my colleague Dr. Christina Edmondson host a popular podcast called “Truth’s Table.” As Ekemini said in an episode titled Reparations NOW, reparations are “part of our embodied faith” and a necessity to move the conversation on “racial reconciliation” forward. As she said, “you won’t hear me talk about race anymore without talking about reparations.”
It seems to me that reparations, that biblical justice, demands that the people who have had to live through the bloody aftermath of what began as a perverse colonial project ought to be able to come and go in the United States as they please, and be offered citizenship if they want it.
Perhaps Douglass said it most clearly, in a passage from the same article on colonization quoted above:
“For two hundred and twenty-eight years has the colored man toiled over the soil of America, under a burning sun and a driver’s lash—plowing, planting, reaping, that white men might roll in ease, their hands unhardened by labor, and their brows unmoistened by the waters of genial toil; and now that the moral sense of mankind is beginning to revolt at this system of foul treachery and cruel wrong, and is demanding its overthrow, the mean and cowardly oppressor is meditating plans to expel the colored man entirely from the country. Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all that countenance such a proposition. We live here—have lived here—have a right to live here, and mean to live here.”