The Department of Homeland Security has until Wednesday to decide the futures of thousands of Syrians living in the United States under the Temporary Protected Status program, which allows citizens of countries impacted by natural disaster or armed conflict to live and work in the U.S.
The TPS designation for Syria, which dates back to 2012, will expire on March 31. The Trump administration must announce whether it will offer an extension or re-designation at least 60 days before then — January 31.
TPS offers temporary legal status for migrants fleeing unsafe conditions. The looming Syria deadline comes amid DHS cancellations of TPS protections for citizens of Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Sudan that had been in place for years — and, in the case of Nicaragua, almost two decades. “No decision has been made regarding TPS for Syria,” said DHS spokesperson Katie Waldman, who declined to answer any other questions about the deliberations. More than 430,000 people are currently living in the U.S. with TPS protections, according to the Congressional Research Service.
“A lot of the people we hear from are very desperate and frantic about their situation, and they can’t understand — and this is not just Syrians — how the United States can consider deporting a person back to Syria, which is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world,” said Nadeen Aljijakli, an Ohio-based immigration attorney. “They’re trying to see if they have other options and trying to make plan B’s for themselves, but sometimes those options aren’t available, so they’re really stuck and waiting to see what’ll happen.”
All Syrians who were physically present in the United States prior to the cutoff date were eligible to apply for TPS, meaning they did not necessarily fear persecution upon returning to Syria, as refugees do. Still, those who sought refuge in the United States — a country with a spoken policy that Bashar al-Assad must step down, even if its actions do not necessarily align with that goal — would likely not be greeted with a marching upon their return.
Quite the opposite: The very act of leaving Syria, particularly in the early years of the uprising, was highly politicized and sometimes seen as treasonous. Although Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem called on refugees to return to Syria after President Donald Trump signed the first travel ban last year, Assad a few days later said that some refugees are “definitely” terrorists, the same description he gave to anti-government protesters in 2011. The regime has continued to round up political prisoners over the last year, including people arrested “because [of] their relatives’ involvement with armed opposition factions or because of their involvement in providing humanitarian aid,” according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
There are about 7,000 Syrian TPS beneficiaries in the United States, and many of them have laid down roots. Take, for example, Maysaa Alsous. Her family has lived in Fairfax, Virginia, since 2012, when they came to visit her brother-in-law’s family for the summer — they expected the war would be over in a couple of months, and they would be able to return home. But Syria continued to descend deeper and deeper into war, and Alsous’s family realized there was no going back just yet. They rented a house, enrolled her two daughters in school, and eventually applied for TPS.
Now able to live and work in the U.S., Alsous and her family began to settle in. Her husband joined his brother as a business partner at a local pizzeria, and Alsous, who had studied education and ran a business in Damascus devoted to teaching children mental math, launched a teaching business. She now runs a weekend school in which she teaches Arabic and mental math; she also teaches in after-school programs at local schools and offers private tutoring lessons. She is, by all measures, a success story.
“My biggest concern is about my daughter,” Alsous said. “If TPS is not renewed, she’ll be starting college next year as an international student.”
Whether she can finish college would remain an open question. If TPS is revoked, DHS may allow a grace period of a year or a year and a half for those losing the status to make arrangements or apply for protection in other ways, but there are few options. “Because the conflict has been going on for so long, there are many Syrians that have been able to find alternative options to remain in the country,” Aljijakli said. “Sometimes it’s through employment, sometimes it could be family-based. So those options are always there, but they’re very limited. It’s extremely hard to find the qualifying employer, and whether someone gets married or not is also an open question. So those are very limited options.”
Some may choose to apply for asylum, although being from Syria is not on its own enough to meet the criteria. Asylum-seekers must be able to show an individualized fear of persecution based on one of five protected classes, including religion and political opinion. (People seeking asylum must apply within one year of entering the United States, but that bar can be overcome when there is a change in circumstances, such as the loss of another form of legal status, like TPS.)
“A lot of people think that just because someone comes from a country that’s going through a horrendous time, that’s very dangerous, that they should automatically qualify for asylum,” Aljijakli added. “But the United States doesn’t have a system of humanitarian asylum, like many other countries do.”
The secretary of homeland security can designate a foreign country for TPS when conditions there make it difficult for foreign nationals to return safely or if the country is unable to adequately handle the return of its people. According to federal regulations, the designation can be made in the case of ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster or epidemic, or “other extraordinary and temporary conditions.” In eliminating TPS, the Trump administration has argued that the conditions that brought about the initial designation — Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, for example — had lapsed, while ignoring ongoing conditions — such as Haiti’s cholera epidemic and high levels of violence in El Salvador — that make a return all but impossible.
In the case of Syria, however, the armed conflict — and the resulting humanitarian crisis — that spurred the 2012 designation is very much ongoing and shows no sign of abating. For immigration lawyers and advocates, that makes a renewal of the program a no-brainer.
“If we were looking purely at the regulations and the way TPS is applied, it seems like it should be a straightforward matter. Is there still a humanitarian crisis and armed conflict in Syria? Yes,” Aljijakli said. “So you would think that the decision would be to extend it, which is the expectation for so many. But things are different now under this administration, so it’s taken out of the normal analysis that would take place and thrown into the political realm that we’re in right now, which is whether the Trump administration wants to allow close to 7,000 Syrians to remain in the United States right now or not.”
The State Department said in a January 10 travel warning that “no part of Syria is safe from violence,” a conclusion a number of advocacy groups reminded the government about in a letter to DHS and the State Department.
Regardless of what the Trump administration ultimately decides, its handling of the issue presents a radical departure from the Obama administration’s approach.
After the initial 2012 designation, DHS both extended and re-designated TPS for Syria in 2013, 2015, and 2016, meaning the agency allowed existing program beneficiaries to renew their status and also allowed Syrians who had either not previously applied or had recently entered the U.S. to apply for protections as well.
While DHS could choose to eliminate the program in its entirety, it also has the option of extending TPS but not re-designating it. Doing so would, in fact, be in line with the agency’s actions regarding TPS for countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua, which saw repeated extensions but no re-designations.
Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Right Watch, said a decision to terminate TPS for Syria would go against the advice of the U.N. refugee agency. “With mounting pressure on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey to return, the U.S. government’s termination of temporary protected status for Syrians would send a particularly dangerous signal that could impact far larger numbers of Syrians at serious risk of forced return,” he added.
Over the past few weeks, conditions in Syria have been particularly dire in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib — both “de-escalation” zones under assault by the Syrian regime and Russia, and the latter the site of government-rebel fighting — and Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria that Turkey invaded over the weekend.
Regardless of what the Trump administration ultimately decides, its handling of the issue presents a radical departure from the Obama administration’s approach, according to a group that has been petitioning for Syria’s TPS designation for years.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee petitioned the Obama administration for a TPS designation in 2012, said the group’s National Legal and Policy Director Abed Ayoub. They requested an extension and re-designation prior to the program’s expiration in 2013, 2014, and 2016, and met with senior DHS and State Department officials each time. ADC sent a letter to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on January 11 making a similar request. In the letter, obtained by The Intercept, ADC pointed to Syria’s humanitarian and refugee crisis, as well as the escalation of the armed conflict, as reasons to extend the program. “Extension and re-designation will pose little burden on the U.S.,” the letter reads. “Relatively few Syrians are able to obtain the documentation and travel arrangements necessary to come to the United States.”
The agencies acknowledged receipt but did not respond to requests for a meeting, Ayoub said. (Waldman, the DHS spokesperson, said she could not comment on meetings with stakeholders under the current and former administrations.)
ADC’s pro bono legal department has helped hundreds of Syrians with TPS applications in recent years, Ayoub said, adding that the cancellation of the program would have a devastating impact on the lives of their clients.
“A lot of these individuals that have been here, they’ve carried on, and they’re law-abiding,” Ayoub said. “Some of them want to go back — but they want to go back when it’s safe, when there’s not a humanitarian crisis, when there’s not bombs dropping on them, when they’re not in danger of losing their lives.”