Just last week, I received an inquiry from a Syrian living in the U.S. whose elderly father was killed that very morning by a missile strike in Damascus – the relatively safer part of Syria. Afraid for his own life, he wanted to know if he would be deported to Syria. With humanitarian relief, known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), set to expire for nearly 7,000 Syrians at the end of this month, many fear the Trump administration’s looming decision.
The countries selected for TPS are few and far between, with only ten currently designated. And the Trump administration appears to be eliminating TPS protection for each designated country one at a time: Nicaragua, Sudan, Haiti, and now the latest upset of El Salvador, which was designated 17 years ago and tragically affects at least 200,000 people. In light of the Trump administration’s unrelenting attacks against dreamers, refugees, immigrants, and other vulnerable populations, Syrians in the U.S. are bracing themselves for the worst.
In order to extend the program, the Department of Homeland Security must merely decide whether the catastrophic country conditions in Syria, that warranted the TPS designation in 2012, continue to be met. Although the answer appears not only obvious, but indisputable, Washington is mulling this over. If the administration decides that Syrians no longer require protection and terminates TPS on January 31, 2018, such a devastating decision can only be grounded in political theatre, and not the reality of the country’s conditions.
The very suggestion that it may somehow be safe enough for Syrians to return to their home country is disingenuous. While the Trump administration has been busy creating buzz words, fear-mongering, and political rhetoric out of the term, “Syrian refugees,” there are actually more than 5.5 million human beings, a fourth of the country, that have been forced to flee Syria since 2011. At least 6.5 million have been internally displaced. More than half a million have been killed. The Department of State itself – the agency that is consulted in TPS designations -- has assigned Syria the highest possible danger rating – Level 4 -- in its travel advisory, warning:
Do not travel to Syria due to terrorism, civil unrest, and armed conflict. No part of Syria is safe from violence. Kidnappings, the use of chemical warfare, shelling, and aerial bombardment have significantly raised the risk of death or serious injury. The destruction of infrastructure, housing, medical facilities, schools, and power and water utilities has also increased hardships inside the country.
The situation in Syria has been pegged as the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time and one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Not only is the country plagued with constant aerial bombardment, chemical attacks, shortages of electricity, water, and medical infrastructure, but also innocent civilians, including women and children, continue to be relentlessly arrested, jailed, tortured, disappeared, and murdered by the Syrian authorities and brutally targeted by terrorist groups. Human rights violations are rampant, including mass executions and unthinkable torture methods; and detainees are subjected to sub-human conditions, including “rape and abuse in overcrowded cells where prisoners are left to suffocate and succumb to illness or starvation.” This is still happening. Moreover, the country continues to be grappled by armed conflict. Groups are still battling for control over parts of the country, including the Syrian government, supported by Russia’s military intervention and Iranian proxies, in addition to ISIS, Kurdish factions, and a wide array of rebel groups. The situation has dramatically deteriorated each year, and there is no improvement in sight. The fact that world powers are coming to accept Syria’s ill fate and the government’s increasing gains does not mean the situation has been resolved by any standard.
TPS is a long-established protection that Congress created nearly 30 years ago as part of our nation’s immigration system. The purpose of TPS is to protect foreign nationals, who are already in the U.S., from imminent dangers in their home country resulting from war, natural disasters, or other emergency conditions until the situation resolves. Individuals are given an 18-month window to live and work in the U.S., until the country conditions come under review again by the Department of Homeland Security for potential extension of TPS. TPS is considered a temporary status, and does not lead to refugee status, a green card, or U.S. citizenship.
TPS for Syrians was originally announced in 2012, a year after the conflict began. It was extensively reviewed and extended by the Obama administration in 2013, 2015, and most recently in 2016. A decision to now end TPS would cause desperate Syrians with no options to apply for other forms of relief, such as asylum, which can take years for resolution and for which they may not necessarily qualify. Generalized violence and civil war are often insufficient to meet the strict legal standard for asylum. An increase in such applications would simply overburden the already backlogged U.S. immigration court system. These individuals deserve the opportunity to remain in the U.S. under the simple, humanitarian protection of TPS, for which they plainly qualify.
While the Trump administration may stand to gain political points with its right wing supporters for being “tough on immigration,” many Syrians, who consider their return to Syria a death sentence, will pay the price. The President continues to leverage his platform of xenophobia and superiority against those less fortunate — nations he, reportedly, disgracefully refers to as “shithole” countries. This cannot be the guiding force of this country’s immigration policies. By ending TPS for Syrians, the administration would not only be turning its back on a most vulnerable population, but it would be abandoning the humanitarian principles and values that led to the creation of TPS. Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), a leading voice on U.S. foreign policy, recently stated, “I helped draft the TPS law  in the 1980s. It was designed to be more concerned with protection than with duration. We must never play politics with people’s lives.”
The U.S. Department of State is correct. No part of Syria is safe from violence – plain and simple. Thousands of Syrians in America await their fate with trepidation, as the potential TPS extension undergoes review. With just weeks remaining, we can only hope that politics do not trump humanity and that the U.S. government uses its power responsibly.