Liberia traditionally was not an important source country for immigration to North America; however, political turmoil during the 1990s and into the 21st century and the region’s special relationship to the United States led to a significant increase in immigration. According to the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 25,575 Americans and 640 Canadians claimed Liberian descent. Some Liberian American groups estimate the numbers in the United States to be much higher, mainly because of the provisional status of large numbers of temporary admissions. New York City and Washington, D.C., have the largest Liberian populations.
Liberia comprises 37,743 square miles situated on the West African Atlantic coast between Sierra Leone and Guinea to the north and Côte d’Ivoire to the east. Established as a refuge for freed American slaves in 1821, Liberia displayed an unusual amount of political stability in an otherwise unstable region. As a result, only a few thousand Liberians immigrated to the United States during the first eight decades of the 20th century. From 1980, however, divisions between ethnic and culture groups became more pronounced and political instability more common. The most numerous ethnic groups included the Kpelle (19.4 percent), Bassa (13.9 percent), Grebo (9 percent), Gio (7.8 percent), Kru (7.3 percent), and Mano (7.1 percent). About 63 percent of Liberia’s 3.2 million people (2001) practice native religions; 21 percent are Christians, and 16 percent, Muslims. From its independence in 1847 until 1980, Liberia was governed by the descendants of the original African-American settlers. The last of these leaders, President William R. Tolbert, was assassinated during a 1980 coup that ushered in the violent dictatorship of Sergeant Samuel Doe. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) launched an invasion from the Côte d’Ivoire in December 1989, leading to a vicious civil war that saw 250,000 killed and two-thirds of the country’s citizens displaced. When fighting intensified in the capital of Monrovia in April 1996, 20,000 people took refuge in the U.S. embassy compound. In July 1997, NPFL leader Charles Taylor was elected president with 72 percent of the vote.
Unique in its relationship to the United States, Liberia received more emigrants from the United States than it sent there from its founding in 1821 until the 1960s. As some Liberians began to immigrate to the United States during the 20th century, their numbers remained extremely small through World War II (1939–45)—27 between 1925 and 1929; 30 between 1930 and 1939; 28 between 1940 and 1949. Though immigration grew in the 1950s and 1960s, it still totaled only 800 for that 20-year period. The significant period of Liberian immigration came only as a result of the civil war waged between 1989 and 1997, when almost 17,000 Liberians entered the United States, many evacuated in the last days of the war. Some were admitted as refugees, but about 10,000 were granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which ended in 1999. When TPS expired in September of that year, President Bill Clinton protected them from removal under the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) program, which did not qualify immigrants for permanent residency but allowed them temporary residency and permission to work until dangerous and unstable conditions at home allow a return. The DED status was then extended annually, ensured at least through October 2004. From 1999, a number of members of Congress supported measures to regularize the status of Liberians under DED. In 2004, the Liberian Immigration Bill (S656) (H.R. 919) and the Liberian Refugee Immigration Protection Act of 2003 were still in committee. Between 1998 and 2001, more than 10,000 Liberian refugees were admitted to the United States, as well as 7,000 regular immigrants.