The defense spending package for the fiscal year 2020 will allow thousands of Liberians living in the United States to gain green cards. The $738-billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was signed into law by President Trump in December. About 4,000 Liberians may now have a path to citizenship under this new law.

Many Liberians have been living in the United States since fleeing civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Yet access to and eligibility for legal protection has not been consistent.

The Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED) program provided eligible Liberians temporary protection from deportation. Although DED prevents deportations in the short term, participants live with the constant risk of the program ending. Trump threatened to end DED last year, before eventually extending it through March of 2020.

Before the introduction of DED for Liberians in 1999, many Liberians benefited from Temporary Protected Status (TPS) until it was revoked for Liberians in 2007. Some Liberians have obtained DACA, but that program is also temporary and its future is uncertain.

Liberians argued in a lawsuit last year that conditions in Liberia have not improved enough to return safely. They argue sending them back would constitute discrimination based on nationality.

To benefit under the new law, Liberians must have been continuously present in the United States since November 20, 2014. Spouses and children of those eligible may also now have a path to a green card. Some restrictions will apply, such as a ban on certain criminal histories. Other requirements will not apply, such as the public charge rule—which denies immigration status to those likely to be financially dependent on the government.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) started accepting applications for the adjustment of status under the NDAA on December 20 and will continue to do so for one year from that date. Once approved applicants receive a green card, they may apply to naturalize immediately, without the typical 5-year waiting period.

The Liberian adjustment provision in the NDAA was brought to Congress in previous years. Since 1999, Senator Harry Reed introduced the change as the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act every year. Relief for Liberians was also included in the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which passed in the House of Representatives but has not passed in the Senate.

The NDAA included several other provisions benefiting certain groups of immigrants connected to the military. It allows for parole in place for some family of service members, temporarily protecting them from deportation. It also increases from 18,500 to 22,500 the number of special immigrant visas for Iraqi nationals who have worked for the U.S. government in Iraq. Finally, it protects service members with DACA or TPS status from being involuntarily separated from the military.

Unfortunately, the act does not include provisions to restrict the transfer of military resources for the purpose of immigration enforcement. Historically, failure to explicitly restrict the transfer of funds has opened the door for more funding for detention beds and the border wall.

Despite its shortcomings, the spending package made vital changes. The green card provision is a huge success for Liberians living in the United States without permanent status. Yet similar long-term protections are still needed for TPS beneficiaries from other countries, many of whom risk losing their status depending on the result of a pending court case. Hopefully, 2020 will bring these other much-needed changes.