On the last day of last January, the Trump administration announced an 18-month extension of the temporary permission that granted some Syrians to stay in the United States.
Known as TPS, or temporary protected status, this designation allows Syrians to work legally in the U.S. through September 30, 2019. But for many of the more than 6,000 Syrians with TPS, the uncertainty between renewal periods is excruciating, especially as President Trump stokes deep fears about immigrants, particularly Muslims. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban barring most people from five predominantly Muslim countries, including war-torn Syria, from entering the U.S.
Now, Syrians who are already in the U.S. seeking safety from the brutal conflict in their country and working to build new lives here find themselves in a state of limbo: Will the U.S. government ever grant them asylum? Will their green cards—the first step to permanent residency—ever be approved? Will their TPS renewals be granted in time?
Below are the stories of three Syrians, Mohammad, Amr, and Monzer, striving to make new homes as they struggle with the gravity of these questions.
Mohammad and Dania: Waiting for asylum
Restrictions. Delays. Obstacles. Mohammad Alala runs out of synonyms to describe the struggles he and his wife, Dania, have endured since fleeing Syria six years ago and coming to the U.S. seeking asylum.
They left Syria when Mohammad, who was working as an engineer, began receiving threats for organizing humanitarian aid for families displaced by the war. After spending six months trying unsuccessfully to get work permits in Saudi Arabia, the couple decided to use their student visas and head to the U.S. In May 2013, they arrived in Florida, where Mohammad immediately began studying English, and Dania enrolled in graduate school to become a registered nutritionist. Eager to work again, Mohammad applied for TPS and got his work permit that fall.
"I started off as a clerk in a convenience store just to make some money to pay our bills,” Mohammad recalls. It was almost a year before he landed an engineering job in June 2014 at a subsidiary of AT&T. And, because of restrictions on Syrian nationals, it was another three years before that job became full-time.
"Thankfully,” says Mohammad, “the management at the company likes me—they like my work—so they tried their best to let me in. And they succeeded.”
By contrast, the Alalas’ asylum application, which they started shortly after arriving in 2013, has been making little headway.
"I tried to keep following up with the asylum office in Miami,” Mohammad says, “but they kept saying they had a backlog and were unable to keep interviewing people.”
By the time the couple finally got an interview in April 2017, they had been living in the United States for four years and had two sons, both born here. Since the interview, however, the process has stalled again. When Mohammad followed up, the office informed him they had not yet reviewed his family’s case.
But there is one silver lining: Asylee candidates can apply for work permits 150 days after applying for asylum if they have not received a decision. Instead of renewing his TPS this year, Mohammad applied for and received a permit through the asylum office. Unlike TPS, which provides a work permit for about a year, Mohammad’s new work permit lasts two years.
Mohammad says he is extremely relieved not to be going through the TPS renewal process, which has been unusually slow this year. None of his friends who applied for renewal in March have received their extensions, which means they also cannot receive their new work permits. Although the government extended their current permits until September, these individuals are nervous they could lose their jobs in coming months. Many have already had their bank accounts suspended due to the delay and must live without credit cards and checking accounts.
Compounding the professional difficulties TPS holders face are the costs of securing that status and other permits. Mohammad’s family alone has spent thousands of dollars: “For TPS, roughly speaking, I have to pay 500 dollars for me and 500 for my wife every time I reapply. For work permits based on asylum, $400 for me, $400 for my wife.”
Worse than the slow pace of application processes, Mohammad emphasizes, is the fear of not being able to work in this country at all if the TPS program is cancelled or the family’s asylum application is turned down. Returning to Syria would be too dangerous. So, for the foreseeable future, the family plans to continue living in Florida, the only home their two young sons have ever known.
"Overall, living in the U.S. is good,” Mohammad says. “My wife is doing well. I’m gaining a lot of experience. My kids are doing a lot of good stuff.”
Amr: Happy for TPS, but hoping for his green card
When Amr Sinan learned last winter that TPS for Syrians had been renewed, he was elated, and so were the co-workers who had been rooting for him. Like so many Syrians, he had been on tenterhooks.
"I was so happy. You get a little bit of hope,” says Amr, who heads a team of engineers at Wayfair, where he is a technical lead manager. “I was hopeless at the time. I’d seen what happened with other TPS countries. They got cancelled.”
Though the renewal has bought him some time, what Amr is really hoping for is his green card, which Wayfair is sponsoring in order to harness his potential. This spring, Amr completed his master’s degree in technical entrepreneurship at Northeastern University, which required taking class at night after working all day. He earned such a high grade point average that he was invited to a prestigious honor society reserved for the top 20 percent of business school graduates.
Despite his accomplishments, Amr’s hope for the future is mixed with fear.
"I’m really scared about the decision about my green card. It is taking so much time,” says Amr, who knows he meets its legal requirements, but wonders if the policies of the current administration will affect the outcome of his application.
"I do love and respect the fact that everyone is under the law here in the U.S. However, when a policy is so general and includes a whole country or religion without taking into consideration any personal situation, then that's unfair,” he says.
With a green card so close at hand, Amr admits some hesitancy in discussing immigration issues for fear it could affect his application—and his future. If he were deported to Syria, Amr says he would undoubtedly be tortured or killed for participating in peaceful demonstrations against the corruption of the Syrian government years ago. At the same time, not to talk about the importance of TPS and its possible renewal in 2019 would be selfish, he says.
"I am thinking of those other 6,000 Syrians if it doesn’t get renewed,” says Amr. “They will go through the same frustration and fear. I’m imagining those people with families and kids. I don’t know how they plan for that.”
Few people can meet the stringent requirements needed to apply for a permanent immigration status, much less succeed in receiving one.
"It’s really hard to get sponsored here in the United States,” Amr says of applying for a green card. “Candidates must have some skill that doesn’t exist here in the market…. I got lucky because I’m in software engineering. There is really high demand for it.”
Amr wants Americans to understand both the value of TPS and the need for a more comprehensive solution to the challenges TPS holders face.
"It’s a great program … which I think is really helpful for [promoting] fundamental human beings’ rights—a great value this nation has,” says Amr. But as TPS holders put down roots over the years—as they pay taxes, start families, and buy homes—the idea that all they have worked so hard to build could vanish strikes them with deep fear.
"Any time it [TPS] stops, all the investment you’ve put in can stop. It doesn’t take into consideration the future of these people,” says Amr, who loves the U.S. and cannot fathom the idea of leaving his life in Boston. “It took me a lot of time and effort to integrate here, to understand the system, to finish school. I invested in different places—my work, my education, my condo. It’s tough at this moment to start over for me.”
Amr hopes for the world to become a better place, and for American voters and policymakers to act with compassion when they consider the fates of thousands of Syrians with TPS.
Monzer: TPS renewal nightmare
Monzer “Moe” Shakally’s anxiety was high last January as he awaited word on whether TPS renewal would come through for Syrians. But the worry he felt then paled in comparison to what he endured in the months that followed as his own renewal dragged on and on.
A May graduate of the University of Iowa, Monzer had been making steady plans to attend dental school in the fall, including applying for TPS renewal as soon as the option was available. He had been working at a local grocery store, saving money, and had begun to apply for financial aid and student loans.
But his dream of becoming a dentist like his mother hinged on TPS, and by May he was feeling the pressure of a situation over which he had no control.
"USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) was much less responsive and slower on processing this year,” explains Monzer, who has gone through the process before. Usually, the process takes only a few months, but by his graduation, Monzer had still received no information from the agency aside from a confirmation of his application receipt.
The bank would not grant Monzer a student loan until his TPS was renewed. Starting to get nervous, Monzer tried to create a USCIS online account to view updates on his case. But USCIS never sent his access code in the mail. He left multiple voicemails with its office. No response.
Monzer began to panic. “There was a real chance I wouldn’t be able to get a loan in time for school,” he recalls. “It was closer and closer to dental school. I already had signed a lease for the next three years, so I couldn’t find a job somewhere else.” He felt like he was trapped in limbo.
In June, Monzer reached out to the American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS), which referred his case to an attorney. The attorney advised that because Monzer would suffer severe financial loss if he could not get his loan soon enough, he qualified for USCIS to expedite his TPS application.
Two weeks after Monzer put in the expedite request, USCIS denied it.
It was now July. The University of Iowa’s College of Dentistry started in August.
His attorney followed up with USCIS to review the decision. Finally, after weeks of phone calls, USCIS reversed course and approved Monzer’s expedite request on July 24.
Less than a week later, his TPS was approved.
"It was a weight lifted off my shoulders,” says Monzer, adding he also learned he would be able to get the loans he needed to start school.
Unfortunately, Monzer’s experience applying for TPS renewal is not unique. In a small survey of TPS- holders conducted by ARCS in June, none of the respondents had received confirmation that their TPS was renewed. Like Monzer, 83 percent of respondents had received absolutely no communication regarding their TPS status aside from confirmation their application had been received. Not one had heard from USCIS in the past month.
"I’m very thankful for all the help of advocacy groups like ARCS,” Monzer says. For now, he is relieved, and he is hopeful that there will be another TPS renewal for Syrians next year.
That hope extends to the asylum application he submitted years ago when he fled Syria following his arrest for peacefully protesting. And while he longs to see his family—they gathered for a reunion recently in Lebanon—he does not want to hurt his asylum case by leaving the U.S.
Still, thoughts of his parents, who live in Damascus, are ever present.
"My parents are getting quite old,” says Monzer. “I would like to see them as they get older.”