BOSTON, Massachusetts - Arab and Muslim civil rights advocates in the US are worried the Trump administration may end protections that allow thousands of Syrian citizens to live and work in the country after the cancellation of the same protections for more than 250,000 Salvadoran, Haitian and Nicaraguan nationals.
There are about 6,900 Syrian citizens living in the US under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a programme that allows foreigners whose homelands have been made unsafe by war and natural disasters to remain in the US. The programme is not a path in itself to citizenship or a "green card". Syrians living under TPS entered the US on non-immigration visas and are not counted as refugees.
Still, whether they will be allowed to stay will be decided by the Trump administration by the end of this month.
Since Syrians earned TPS designation under the Obama administration in 2012, its renewal every 18 months was largely seen as automatic and guaranteed, given the ongoing civil war in Syria.
But as President Donald Trump takes steps to curb legal and illegal immigration and continues to fan anti-immigrant fervour among his conservative base, there is substantial concern that Syrians could lose their legal status in the US.
‘A hostile, anti-immigrant agenda’
“Based on the administration’s hostility towards immigrants - especially from TPS countries - and its disregard for the safety of these communities, there’s a great uncertainty on whether it will reauthorise TPS for Syrians, Yemenis and any other class of immigrants that seek protective status in the United States,” said Robert McCaw, the director of the Council of American-Islamic Relation’s government affairs department.
“There’s a hostile, anti-immigrant agenda in this administration that panders to white supremacists. Their overall goal is to reduce the number of coloured immigrants in this country,” McCaw added.
Matthew Chrastek, the coordinator of the American Relief Coalition for Syria, another group lobbying to maintain the status quo for Syrians, said his organisation is working under the assumption that TPS will not be renewed for Syrians.
Their overall goal is to reduce the number of coloured immigrants in this country
- Robert McCaw, Council of American-Islamic Relations
Concern that protections for Syrians could end grew after the Department of Homeland Security cancelled TPS for citizens of El Salvador on 8 January, giving 200,000 Salvadorans until 9 September of next year to leave the country.
While Syria clearly fits the definition of TPS’ mandate, it is also a country whose people Trump has singled out for criticism time and time again. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump painted Syrians trying to seek refuge in the US as potential terrorists, saying they would be “the great Trojan horse of all time” and were “definitely, in many cases, ISIS-aligned”, using an acronym for the Islamic State (IS) group.
He said he would look Syrian children in the face and say “you can’t come” to America. Within days of taking office in 2017, he listed Syria as one of seven Muslim-majority nations that would be subject to a travel ban. And as he looked to end refugee programmes, Trump promoted keeping Syrian refugees in their country in proposed “safe zones” that experts derided as unrealistic and dangerous.
“The problem is that when you have a president hell bent on being insensitive and cruel and calling for a Muslim ban - with Syria being of the countries - I think it’s of concern to me what kind of judgment he’ll show” on TPS, said James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute.
In a statement to Middle East Eye on Wednesday, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said no decision had yet been made on the TPS programme for Syrians.
Syrians in the US under TPS are now left anxiously waiting to see if their lives will be upended again.
After protections were ended for Salvadorans, a tearful Syrian woman came into the Flint, Michigan office of immigration lawyer Muna Jondy, desperately seeking reassurance that Syrians on TPS like her would not be expelled.
“I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t reassure you of what’s going to happen.’ And, literally, she left my office in tears,” Jondy said.
If TPS is rescinded, Syrians in the US will have few options to turn to.
“Other than finding a visa or asylum - and asylum is not a great option - really it’s going to be either living in the shadows or showing up at the Canadian border,” she said.
Many Syrians are now mulling getting asylum, but the process is long, difficult and not guaranteed to work. Asylum applicants must show that they personally would be subject to persecution and danger due to their race, religion, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Simply fleeing the dangers of war alone is generally not enough to warrant asylum.
It’s going to be either living in the shadows or showing up at the Canadian border
- Muna Jondy, immigration lawyer
“Am I concerned? I’m terrified, man,” said Louay, a 32-year-old Syrian living in the Washington DC area. Fearful that speaking to an American journalist could have negative impacts on family members living in government-held areas of Syria, he asked that only his first name be used.
Louay came to the US in 2012, early in Syria’s conflict, to get a master’s degree. He planned on returning home after his studies, but as Syria’s war intensified, he viewed it as too dangerous.
As a young man who shirked Syria’s compulsory military service, Louay also fears that returning to his home in government-held Syria would mean being forced to the frontlines or thrown in prison.
“If they don’t renew the TPS I don’t know what I should be doing,” he said. “I’ve been having nightmares about it for the last three months.”
“I thought if somebody reached the US they would be safe as it’s the country of the free world, they are the leader of the free world. I don’t feel safe any more,” he said.
Ahmad Keichour, a Syrian orthodontist living in Atlanta, Georgia, is also afraid for the future of his family in the US.
He fled Aleppo in 2012 as Syrian rebels entered the city, and because past insurrections before the war were crushed quickly, Keichour assumed that the battle for Aleppo would be a short one.
His family packed its bags for what he thought would be a weeks-long evacuation, but the fight for Aleppo dragged on for more than four years.
After spending two years in Saudi Arabia, Keichour obtained a tourist visa to enter the US, a country he admired and thought would provide a safe refuge for his wife and kids.
“You pick this country because you believe that there is democracy here. A better future for your kids, better human values - all of those issues make you take your decision to come to this country,” he said.
Not certified to work as a dentist in the US, he was relegated to work as an orthodontist's assistant to provide for his family and make ends meet. He, his wife and two of his children are Syrian, but a third was born in the US and has gained citizenship. Losing the right to live and work in the US would be disastrous, he said.
Watching citizens of other nationalities lose TPS protections - people who have been in the US longer than Syrians and in greater numbers - Keichour fears that the US government will have little sympathy for Middle Easterners seeking refuge in the US.
“People from those countries didn’t come here just for fun. They are seeking a better future,” he said.