The window for Syrians in the United States to apply for a special temporary legal designation closes July 6, but less than half of the estimated 10,000 who qualify have applied so far. Advocates say that disparity reflects fear of the U.S. immigration system and may indicate that more Syrians in the U.S. are applying for asylum instead as the war drags into its fifth year.
Among those applying for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is Osama Shaguj, a 28-year-old data analyst. He was finishing a master’s in finance in Ohio in the spring of 2012 when Bashar al-Assad’s regime was holding multiple Syrian cities under military siege.
“It was chaos,” said Shaguj, “and being an activist against the government, my family didn’t want me to go back.”
Shaguj said his Facebook posts and pictures of him at demonstrations in the U.S. against the Assad regime had garnered attention in Syria. But despite the fact that he believed his political activities made it unsafe for him to return home, he didn’t want to apply for asylum.
“I didn’t want to feel like or be an asylee,” he said. “TPS came as a middle ground.”
Under the program, Shaguj gets authorization to work and the right to live in the United States, but only for 18 months at a time.
The Department of Homeland Security first ordered that Temporary Protected Status (TPS) be given to Syrian nationals already in the United States in March 2012, and has twice extended the designation for 18 months. To qualify, Syrians must demonstrate they were in the country before the cutoff date — originally March 2012 and now, Jan. 5, 2015.
Anyone who arrived even a day later cannot apply.
Under the latest extension, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, which administers TPS applications, reports that 3,124 Syrians have re-registered and another 1,835 have signed up for the first time. That is fewer than half of the number of Syrians the office estimated (PDF) would qualify.
But many of those people who could have been eligible are now applying for asylum. “A lot of people are frustrated with the longevity of the crisis,” says Abed al-Hamid Ayoub, director of the legal and policy departments at the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.
“That’s when you see the applications for asylum increase,” he said, because many, including Shaguj, see asylum as a last resort. They do not want to give up the ability to return to the region forever. As of March, 356 Syrian asylum cases, which can cover more than one person, were approved this year, but 2,170 are pending. In all of 2014 675 were completed.
Ayoub said there are also others who are not applying for either asylum or TPS out of pride. “They say, ‘I am holding onto my passport; I am Syrian; this will end soon,’” he says, “but we tell them: apply for TPS or asylum, get some income and then decide when you will go back.”
In the months before TPS was extended, Shaguj was anxious to see if the Department of Homeland Security would renew the designation for Syrians, but he said he still prefers this uncertainty to applying for asylum.
“It’s fast. It’s flexible,” and he said of TPS, “At least it gives me some time in order to know where I’m going next.”
Some 355,000 people total hold temporary protected status, with El Salvadorians making up more than half of those. The government regularly extends TPS for some nationalities, sometimes for decades. An estimated 270 Somalis have held their TPS designation continuously since 1991. The program allows the secretary of homeland security to grant foreign nationals already living in the U.S. temporary relief from deportation if conflict or natural disaster makes it unsafe for them to return. Countries suffering from environmental disaster must request to have their citizens living in the U.S. included, but Department of Homeland Security can grant TPS to countries mired in conflict or other extraordinary circumstances without a formal request.
Natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes currently account for the vast majority of TPS holders, some 94 percent. Conflict has meant TPS status has been extended to another estimated 11,190 individuals, or 3.4 percent, and disease, specifically Ebola, caused the designation of three West African countries and 8,000 of their citizens in the U.S. to be granted temporary protected status in 2014.
But if and when DHS does decide to end the program, TPS holders revert back to the immigration status they previously held. That means if they had overstayed a tourist or student visa when they applied, they will once again be here illegally at the end of the TPS period.
Maryann Tharappel, an immigration attorney for the New York Legal Assistance Group, is also concerned that some who could apply have not because they are scared. “There is a lot of disillusionment and fear in the community about these applications,” she said, “because the government has not made themselves out to be a trustworthy agency.”
Nahla Kayali, who runs Access California Services based in San Francisco, estimates that 30 percent of the recently arrived Syrians are on their own. Many of them, she says, are well-educated young people, and they are most concerned with finding work in order to send money back to relatives in the region. She said these Syrians are reluctant to discuss their legal status, especially if they have been granted asylum.
“They have fears and sometimes you cannot explain what that fear is,” says Kayali. She thinks that even if they feel safe in the U.S., they are worried about their families in Syria. They often will not keep appointments with her organization, she says, even though they can get counseling, help finding work, and even financial assistance for housing.
“Everything is confidential,” at her organization, she said, “but we have files for them, and they don’t want to have files.”
Undocumented people and TPS holders are not eligible for public benefits, but Kayali raises funds from her community specifically for Syrians who may not have connections on which to rely. But, she says many would rather keep a very low profile, changing their phone numbers frequently and traveling to different cities.
Still, their phones are the most important thing to them, she says, “more important than food.” Often, texting apps such as Viber, which send messages through an Internet connection, are the only link to family members still in the region.
The war in Syria has caused 3.9 million people to flee and displaced another 7.6 million within the country’s borders. Most of those who have fled are living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, though Germany has allowed some 41,000 Syrian refugees to resettle there, more than any country outside the region. The United States has moved very slowly, admitting just over 1,000 Syrian refugees since 2011, though it resettles more refugees in total than any other country. The United Nations has recommended that 130,000 refugees be resettled over the next 2 years, meaning an exponential expansion of the process.
In practice, Syrians are finding ways to relocate outside of the refugee system, though they can still apply for asylum if they qualify when they reach a new country. This can mean flying to Europe, crossing the Mediterranean, or settling for temporary solutions like those who hold TPS in the United States.
“All of them are thankful for the opportunity to come to the U.S. and to flee the humanitarian crisis and violence in Syria,” says Ayoub of the ADC. “That is the tone of a lot of the folks that we talk to.”
Shaguj hopes TPS will be extended as long as the war in Syria is ongoing. But, his Syrian passport recently expired, and he is not sure if he will be able to renew it.
“Everyone is telling me: you have to apply for the asylum,” he says. “The other option would be to see if the company could sponsor my work, and option ‘C’ would be getting married here.”
He has at least until September 2016, when this period of TPS for Syrians ends, to figure it out.