Syrian Christians in US fear deportation as their protected status is in 'jeopardy'

Syrian immigrants with temporary protected status who met with members of Congress pose for a picture outside of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on July 17, 2019.
Syrian immigrants with temporary protected status who met with members of Congress pose for a picture outside of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on July 17, 2019. | American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS)

Thousands of Syrian immigrants in the U.S., including Christians, could be at risk of deportation back to their dangerous and deadly home country. A decision by the Trump administration to extend their longstanding temporary protected status has yet to be made as a crucial deadline looms, advocates say. 

With a Sept. 30 deadline, advocates say that a decision is expected on Thursday by Acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, on whether the temporary protected status will continue for 7,000 Syrians seeking refuge in the U.S. 

Temporary protected status is given by the Department of Homeland Security to immigrants from countries suffering through war or disaster who came legally to the U.S. in order to give them the ability to stay and work until conditions in their country improve. 

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For Syrians in the U.S., TPS status was first designated under the Obama administration in March 2012 and has been extended ever since. 

The last time TPS protection for Syrians in the U.S. was extended was in March 2018. However, the administration did not at that time re-designate the TPS status for Syria, meaning that Syrian immigrants who came to the U.S. after Aug. 1, 2016, are not eligible for the protection. 

Jameson Cunningham, policy and public affairs strategist with Americans for a Free Syria and a former Capitol Hill staffer, told The Christian Post that TPS status for Syrians could be in "jeopardy" at a time in which the Syrian government, it's global allies, and militant groups increase fighting in Syria.

"The deadline is September 30 for current holders but we've heard the administration has put a self-imposed deadline of tomorrow," Jameson said on Wednesday. 

From what Cunningham and others have heard through officials at DHS is that Cuccinelli, an immigration hardliner appointed in June, has expressed "skepticism" on immigration and "these types of issues."

"The story is that TPS might be in jeopardy for Syrian Christians for the first time, even when the violence is actually escalating in Syria," Cunningham said. 

"President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo have all emphasized protecting Christians who are in danger of being persecuted around the world," he added. "Syrian Christians could be sent back. And, anyone who left the country is seen as an enemy by the Assad regime. In government-controlled areas, Syrians returning from abroad are routinely met with arrest, disappearance, or forced conscription."

Cuccinelli suggested earlier this month in a letter to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that because TPS is "discretionary" the agency can still decline to designate the status for countries faced with war or environmental disaster, according to ABC News

The Trump administration has previously terminated TPS status for Haiti, El Salvador, Sudan, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Nepal. 

If TPS status is not extended for Syria, the 7,000 Syrians would need to either leave the U.S., risk deportation back to Syria, or look for a new avenue of legal status in the U.S.

Cunningham noted that Cuccinelli, during his time as Virginia's attorney general, made efforts to protect vulnerable people, including victims of trafficking and children facing abuse. 

"So we're hopeful," Cunningham said. "He has a history in Virginia of caring about the vulnerable children, human trafficking victims, which is a concern if people are forced back. They may go back to end up in a refugee camp nearby in one of the surrounding countries because it really is just unsafe to go back."  

According to a statement released last month by a coalition of Syrian American community groups and humanitarian NGOs, there "is no safe harbor in Syria for those who have fled." 

"Syrians across the country face forced conscription, relentless violence, persecution, detention, torture and death if they return," the statement contends. 

“President Trump and his Administration have designated the crisis as a national emergency and a threat to U.S. national security interests, and rightfully so. The State Department is blunt in its Travel Advisory: ‘No part of Syria is safe from violence.’"

A coalition of 200 faith groups that included World Relief and other refugee resettlement agencies called on the Trump administration this month to extend and re-designate TPS status for Syrian immigrants. 

"The situation in Syria remains one of the worst human rights crises of our time," the statement reads. "At least 511,000 people have lost their lives since the start of the war.

More than 1,100 children were killed in the conflict in 2018 alone. The Syrian government continues to use chemical weapons, relentless bombing, arbitrary arrest, and torture." 

Cunningham warns that the violence in Syria is "far from subsiding" and is actually escalating. He noted that most of the infrastructure is gone. 

A group of Syrian TPS holders met with members of Congress on July 17 to press the issue. 

Last Wednesday, over two dozen members of Congress signed a joint letter sent to Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan and Cuccinelli calling for an extension of TPS status for Syrians. The letter stated that an overwhelming number of the 7,000 Syrians granted TPS are "professionals, including doctors engineers and academics." 

"While we understand the terms and scope of their TPS, it would be an injustice to return them to a country that we advise against traveling to for our own citizens," the lawmakers argue.  

Cunningham told CP that many of the 7,000 granted TPS statuses came to the U.S. on student or professional visas.

"Then the war broke out and they just kind of got stuck here," he said. "The vast majority have either a bachelor's degree or a post-grad degree. They are working here. Unlike the refugee program, the TPS program doesn't provide any benefits."

The concern of deportation for Syrians in the U.S. comes as the Trump administration has reduced the number of refugees being resettled to the U.S., and is planning to deport as many as 1,400 Iraqis, many of whom are Christian. 

About 800 of those Iraqis with final deportation orders have criminal records that range from minor offenses to more serious, according to The Guardian

In fiscal year 2019 (which ends on Sept. 30), the Trump administration has resettled just 31 Syrian Christians and 469 Syrians total. 

By comparison, 65 Syrian Christians and over 12,000 Syrians total were resettled to the U.S. during the last full fiscal year of the Obama administration (2016). 

As a whole, the Trump administration is on track to resettle about 28,000 refugees in the fiscal year 2018. By comparison, nearly 85,000 refugees were resettled to the U.S. during the last full fiscal year of the Obama administration. 

Refugee advocates have voiced concern after a recent Politico report suggested that the administration may shut down refugee admissions in fiscal year 2019. 

While decreasing the number of refugees resettled to the U.S. each year, the Trump administration has placed a priority on helping Christians and other persecuted minorities in the Middle East resettle in their homelands in the wake of the Islamic State's reign of terror in Iraq and Syria.

However, advocates argue that both — resettling refugees and assisting in the rebuilding of torn minority communities — can be done. Additionally, there are many refugees worldwide that face danger if they return home but also face danger in the country in which they fled. 

"A number of refugee-hosting countries also have religious freedom issues, meaning that depending on the faith or belief a refugee comes from, they may still be under threat in a country of forced asylum,” Elizabeth Cassidy, director of international law and policy for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said at a recent briefing on Capitol Hill. “Four of the top 10 refugee-hosting countries are on USCIRF’s Tier 1 or Tier 2 lists [of religious freedom violators]. Those are Turkey, Pakistan, Sudan and Iran.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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