Homeland security department extends temporary protected status but advocates condemn decision not to expand protections
The Trump administration will let 6,900 Syrians who had been allowed to live and work in the US because of dangerous conditions in their home country remain in the US for at least the next 18 months.
Advocates celebrated the announcement by the administration on Wednesday, but were critical of the government’s decision not to extend the protection to Syrians who legally traveled to the US after 1 August 2016.
The decision was a relief for the Syrians who would have faced the prospect of returning to a fractured country racked with violence if the administration had rescinded their temporary protected status (TPS) when it ran out in March. Instead, they are allowed to stay through 30 September 2019.
The 6,900 have been allowed to stay in the US because of TPS, a humanitarian program for people who were already in the US legally. But ahead of a 30 January deadline to renew the protection, advocates were concerned the White House would terminate the protection because of its anti-immigration policies, particularly towards Muslim-majority countries.
This concern lingered, despite the state department warning this month that no place in Syria was safe from violence. People who discussed the renewal with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the White House said on background that the administration was indicating it would not renew the program late last week.
But the US homeland security department said on Wednesday that it renewed the program because the situation in Syria still warranted it.
“After carefully considering conditions on the ground, I have determined that it is necessary to extend the Temporary Protected Status designation for Syria,” the DHS secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, said in a statement. “It is clear that the conditions upon which Syria’s designation was based continue to exist, therefore an extension is warranted under the statute,” she added.
On 17 January the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, warned that Bashar al-Assad’s regime continued to attack Syrians. “The catastrophic state of affairs is directly related to the continued lack of security and legitimate governance in Syria itself,” Tillerson said.
For the first time since the designation was made in March 2012, however, the US government did not re-designate it, which would allow more people to qualify for the protection.
TPS is different from the refugee and asylum programs because it is meant for people who have already entered the US, usually to visit family, study or work. Syrians who entered the US after 1 August 2016 do not qualify for TPS, but they could have if it had been re-designated.
“I don’t understand why they have not chosen to enable Syrians who have come here more recently,” said Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Syria and senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Representative Bill Pascrell, a Democrat from New Jersey, asked the homeland security department to consider re-designating TPS. “The fact remains that life on the ground in Syria has not drastically improved, safety remains paramount, and the Trump administration decision is just another cruel way to leave people in need of assistance out in the cold,” Pascrell said.
There were also concerns the White House would not renew TPS because it had terminated protection for people from four countries in the past four months: El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. The administration extended the protection for South Sudanese people and will decide whether to extend it for Hondurans later this year.
“A decision to extend TPS for Syria was a no-brainer,” said Royce Murray, policy director at the American Immigration Council. “The country conditions are not in dispute, yet we can’t let Syria set the standard for what it takes to get temporary protected status in this country.”
Reuters contributed reporting