The Trump administration has already announced plans to end temporary protections for more than a quarter million immigrants. Now thousands of Syrians in the United States are asking themselves a haunting question: Will we be next?
A deadline is looming for the administration. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen must decide by Wednesday whether to extend or end “temporary protected status,” or TPS, for Syrians.
If the protections end, roughly 6,000 Syrians will have to find another legal way to stay in the United States, or face deportation if they can’t.
‘Sending people to their death’
Monzer Shakally says he has nowhere else to go.
The 21-year-old senior at the University of Iowa was an activist protesting the government when he lived in Syria. He fears officials would force him to join the military if he went back.
“Going back to a revolution is not a possibility. … It’s an extremist civil war now that I’m not interested in taking part in,” he says. “All my friends that were once activists with me are now either dead, missing or refugees in different countries.”
TPS, he says, has allowed him to get a work permit and in-state tuition to study. Next year he plans to begin dental school.
Shakally says he’s optimistic US officials will do the right thing.
“If not,” he says, “they would be truly sending people to their death, and history will not forgive that.”
Protections in place since 2012
Congress created TPS in 1990 as a form of humanitarian relief for people who would face extreme hardship if forced to return to homelands devastated by armed conflict and natural disasters.
The United States first designated Syria for TPS in 2012, almost a year after civil war broke out in the country in the wake of the Arab Spring. An estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations, with millions more displaced.
The Department of Homeland Security last extended TPS for Syria in 2016, warning that violent conflict and a worsening humanitarian crisis continued to place civilians at risk. “Daily bombings of homes, marketplaces, schools, hospitals and places of worship have become commonplace,” officials said at the time.
NGOs, experts push for extension
Since then, dangers on the ground in Syria have only intensified, according to humanitarian groups and other experts who have been pressing US officials to keep protections for Syrians in place.
“We closely monitor the constantly changing situation in Syria, and we can therefore unequivocally state that the security conditions in Syria are by no means improving for civilians,” the American Relief Coalition for Syria wrote in a recent letter to Secretary Nielsen and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “Forcing anyone to return to Syria would pose a serious threat to their personal safety and is tantamount to a death sentence.”
Scaling back TPS
Currently, about 437,000 people from 10 countries have TPS, according to the Congressional Research Service, but hundreds of thousands will lose that protection in the coming years.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced plans to end TPS for more than 250,000 Salvadorans. Officials have also said TPS is ending for thousands of people from Haiti, Sudan and Nicaragua.
A Department of Homeland Security spokesman told CNN Tuesday evening that officials had not yet reached a decision on Syria’s TPS designation.
The administration has made a concerted effort to scale back the use of TPS, ending protections for some countries whose nationals have lived in the United States for two decades. Officials have justified those decisions by pointing to improved conditions in countries once ravaged by earthquakes and other natural disasters. That’s a potential sign that the administration could spare Syria, as the civil war there is ongoing and violent.
Advocates say any other determination would indicate an anti-immigrant agenda as opposed to a dedication to the legal framework of TPS, which requires officials to review country conditions as they weigh whether to extend protections.
Immigration hardliners who’ve hailed the recent decisions to scale back TPS are swift to point out that “temporary” was always part of the deal.
Immigrant rights groups say it’s unfair to uproot hundreds of thousands of people who’ve been obeying the law, paying taxes, working and raising families in the United States.