The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday night that it will extend temporary legal protections to current Syrians living in the United States for a period of 18 months, according to an agency press release. As the Associated Press first reported prior to the announcement, the U.S. government will not let any new Syrian citizens apply under the program.
The Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program designation — which grants temporary work authorization to certain immigrants — would affect an estimated 6,900 Syrians living in the United States. The designation itself does not lead to any kind of pathway to citizenship, so TPS recipients are at the whim of presidents who may decide to cancel the program.
“After carefully considering conditions on the ground, I have determined that it is necessary to extend the Temporary Protected Status designation for Syria,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in the press release. “It is clear that the conditions upon which Syria’s designation was based continue to exist, therefore an extension is warranted under the statute. We will continue to determine each country’s TPS status on a country-by-country basis.”
Two government officials confirmed with the Associated Press and The National before the official announcement that the DHS agency will extend the designation one final time, but that it will not redesignate the country to be a part of the TPS program.
Syrians with TPS status will be able to extend their status for 18 months allowing recipients to live and work legally in the country through September 30, 2019.
“To be eligible for TPS under Syria’s current designation, along with meeting the other eligibility requirements, individuals must have continuously resided in the United States since August 1, 2016, and have been continuously physically present in the United States since October 1, 2016,” the press release stated in part. “Anyone who has been here since the time of the previous designation may be eligible to seek other forms of immigration relief.”
About 2,000 Syrians who entered the United States after August 1, 2016 may not be eligible to stay in the country under TPS.
Congress created the TPS designation in 1990 to provide a temporary relief for certain nationals facing violence, war, natural disasters, or extreme situations in their home countries.
Syria became a TPS designated country in 2012 after the U.S. Department of State determined that President Bashar al-Assad used the military to suppress protests through violent and deadly repression tactics. The decision was extended and redesignated three more times. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, 500,000 people have been killed, six million displaced within the country, and five million more are now registered refugees in other countries. The TPS for Syria was last re-designated in August 2016 and extended through March 31, 2018. DHS determined that the extension was warranted because the ongoing conflict and other conditions in Syria “not only persisted, but have deteriorated.”
Robert Ford, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Senior Fellow at Middle East Institute, acknowledged gratitude for the Trump administration for extending TPS for Syrians, but found it deeply troubling that the White House would not accept new Syrians who applied after August 2016.
“The Syrian conflict is not finished,” Ford told reporters on a phone call Wednesday. “There is still heavy fighting between the government and opposition forces in the eastern part, in the northern part…in the southeastern part of the country. There is still a lot of fighting. The fighting is not finished.”
On the same phone call, Rasha Ajalyaqeen — a Syrian U.S. legal resident with family members impacted by decision — said that she had planned to apply for TPS for her 92-year-old mother who was hoping to apply for TPS when her current visa expires. But now she’s unsure her mother, who currently lives in the United States, can qualify for TPS because of the White House’s announcement. Syria was included in Trump’s travel ban, and it is also among a list of “high-risk” countries that face an even more arduous refugee application process.
“It’s either that the country is okay so let’s normalize [our status] or the country is not okay and let’s extend [our status],” Ajalyaqeen said. “Regardless of who we are, whether we are persona non grata anywhere we go, we deserve some explanation about what exactly is our situation. Are we treated as children of a lesser god?”
“We are in a difficult position and I hope someone would just feel that we deserve a little bit better,” Ajalyaqeen said.
Experts say it would be practically difficult for the U.S. government to remove Syrians from the United States.
“I am not aware the U.S. government has forcibly sent anybody back to Syria since 2011,” Ford said. He pointed out that there aren’t any direct air services between the United States and Syria.
“You would have to change planes somewhere in Europe and the Middle East,” Ford explained. “Our lack of representation in Damascus makes .. it difficult to send people back.”
“You cannot even deport people to land borders to Syria because in that place, neither Lebanon and Jordan would accept them,” Ajalyaqeen said. “I guess that’s adding to the dilemma these days.”
Ford added that men face mandatory conscription if they are returned to Syria, while women and children are either detained with male relatives, or detained as a means to force male relatives into conscription.
“And that’s the best they can hope for,” Ford said. “It can be much worse.”
Ford said the Syrian government views returnees from the United States with “deep suspicion” and could arrest them indefinitely.
Syrian TPS beneficiaries have legitimate reason to be concerned about deportation. The airstrikes have been ceaseless through this week. On Monday, airstrikes damaged a hospital in Idlib Governorate and killed five people and injured six other, according to Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). This happened as the hospital received injured people from another airstrike one hour earlier at the Saraqab’ a market. Eight days earlier, an airstrike almost hit the same hospital.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States would help enable conditions for the safe return of refugees, an assertion that could take a very long time to achieve. The U.S. Department of State recently issued a Level 4 “do not travel” advisory for Syria beginning the advisory with the warning with “No part of Syria is safe from violence.”
In a public letter written to President Donald Trump last week, more than 50 national security and foreign policy experts highlighted the ongoing violence in Syria to argue that TPS was “not only a humanitarian obligation,” but also in “America’s national security interest.”
In recent times, the Trump administration extended the TPS designation one final time for other countries including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Haiti, putting as many as 300,000 lives at risk of deportation. The TPS designation has always been temporary, but various administrations have renewed and re-designated these countries because conditions back in home countries have not recovered from whatever TPS recipients had been fleeing.
CORRECTION: The piece has been corrected to reflect that Ajalyaqeen’s mother holds a current visa and lives in the United States, not in Syria.
UPDATE, 7:44 p.m.: The piece has been updated to include Secretary Nielsen’s press statement from Wednesday night.