6,900 Syrians Win Permission to Stay in the U.S., for Now
Posted January 31, 2018 10:21 p.m. EST
Nearly 7,000 Syrians who were granted temporary permission to live and work in the United States as a civil war devoured their country will be allowed to stay for at least another 18 months, the Trump administration announced on Wednesday, in an acknowledgment that Syria continues to be rattled by conflict.
The decision came as a major relief to Syrians and their advocates. During the past year, the administration has ended Temporary Protected Status, as the humanitarian program is known, for Salvadorans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, decisions that will collectively expose more than 326,000 people to deportation when they formally lose their status.
But the extension for Syria arrived with a caveat: Syrians who came to live in the United States after Aug. 1, 2016, will not be eligible to join the program, a distinction that the Syrian community and its advocates said left some Syrians vulnerable.
Though he was relieved to hear of the final decision, “it’s been very stressful the last few months, especially seeing other countries, that they were terminated from their TPS status, so we were preparing for the worst,” said Nawwar Kabbani, 33, a software architect from Aleppo who was able to start working when he received the temporary permission five years ago. “I’ve been looking at the news every five minutes for the past two days.”
Kabbani, who first came to the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar in 2008 and now lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where he works for a major financial services company and is finishing a doctorate in computer science, said he had been preparing to leave his elderly parents behind to move to Canada or another country. Returning to Syria was never an option, he said: He had been vocal in his criticism of the Syrian government, and feared being persecuted if he was sent back.
The 6,900 Syrians covered by the protected status, many of whom came to the country as students or visitors and remained even after their visas expired, make up only a sliver of the roughly 90,000 Syrians living in the United States, most of whom arrived as refugees or by other legal means. There was no official estimate available on Wednesday of the number of Syrians who lack full legal status but arrived after the Aug. 1, 2016, cutoff.
More than 18,000 have been admitted as refugees since October 2011. But the Trump administration has significantly thinned the flow of refugees, and officials said this week that those from Syria and several other countries will be let in only after undergoing new vetting on top of the screening they already receive.
The temporary status is granted to certain groups of people in the wake of natural disasters, wars, outbreaks of disease and other catastrophes that would make it difficult for them to return safely to their home countries. Government officials periodically review the program to decide whether to extend it, and most groups have received regular extensions in the past. The administration ended protected status for people from Haiti and El Salvador on the grounds that both countries had recovered sufficiently from the earthquakes that were the reason for their original inclusion in the program.
Syria was added in 2012 because of the armed conflict among government forces, anti-government insurgents and the Islamic State. According to the United Nations refugee agency, more than 5.4 million people have fled Syria since 2011, when the civil war began, and that number climbs every month. Another 6.1 million Syrians have been forced from their homes, but are still living within Syria’s borders.
Just this month, the United States accused the government of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, of attacking its own people with chemical weapons, a war crime, in the same region that was devastated four years ago by the deadliest chemical attacks of the entire Syrian conflict.
“There is no way to go back,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent Syrian dissident who was denied political asylum last year, but has been allowed to remain in the United States under the program. “I have a death sentence from the Assad government, I’m on the top of their list.”
He added, “It’s common sense actually to do the right thing, to renew TPS.” It was not clear that Syrians could be deported from the U.S., even if immigration officials tried, said Robert S. Ford, a U.S. ambassador to Syria during the Obama administration who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. There is no direct air service between the two countries, and neither country maintains an official diplomatic presence in the other, which may complicate any efforts to obtain the documentation required before anyone can be deported.
Advocates for extending protected status for Syrians had been hopeful that the administration understood the depths of the challenges still facing Syria. They had seized on remarks made recently by Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state, who pledged to keep U.S. troops in Syria even after the Islamic State is eradicated there in order to stabilize the country.
“The story of Syria has been one of a humanitarian catastrophe,” Tillerson said in a speech at Stanford University this month.
He later added, “There is no way to effectively facilitate a large-scale safe and voluntary return of refugees without a political solution.”
To the Syrians and their supporters, the decision to extend temporary protected status for Syrians, but to exclude new applicants, ignored the reality that Tillerson had described.
“There is an inconsistency in the administration’s own message,” Ford said, adding that neither government- nor rebel-controlled areas were safe for civilians. “The Syrian conflict is not finished.”