The United States says it will designate a special protection status for Syrian nationals in the U.S., which will allow them to remain in the country until it becomes safer for them to return home to Syria.
The Department of Homeland Security, in an online statement released on Friday, said it will issue a Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for Syrians already in the country.
The move will allow Syrian nationals visiting the U.S. - on tourist, business, student and other such visas - to remain beyond the designated period of their visas.
In announcing the move, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said conditions in Syria have worsened to the point where Syrian nationals already in the United States would face “serious threats to their personal safety” if they were to return to their home country.
Earlier in March, six Democratic senators sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to quickly designate Syrian nationals for the Temporary Protection Status.
The letter on March 1 said forcing Syrians to return to their country in the midst of ongoing violence would “undermine U.S. leadership” and be inconsistent with what the senators said is America’s “traditional role as a safe haven for those fleeing repression.”
Humanitarian Crisis Grows
The effort to issue the status to Syrian nationals was spearheaded in part by a coalition of advocacy groups in the U.S. concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Attorney Abed Ayoub is Legal Director of one of those groups, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the largest Arab-American civil rights organization in the U.S.
He helped lead the coalition to petition the Department of Homeland Security in January for the Temporary Protection Status.
Earlier this month, he said the humanitarian situation in Syria was so dire that requiring anybody to return would be “inhumane.”
“We can’t put these individual’s lives in jeopardy,” he said. “If the U.S. State Department feels the embassy over there is not safe enough for their employees, then, for sure, the country’s not safe enough to force nationals to return.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s immigration registry shows there are roughly 3,000 Syrian nationals in the U.S. who would be eligible for the status, although Arab-American activists like Ayoub say the number is much higher.
Syrians Talk of Fears
Nassib Nwelati is among those worried about the possibility of having to go back to Syria when his visa expires. He is in the U.S. on an academic scholarship to study business. His student visa expires in four months and, until the announcement Friday, he felt unsure of where else to turn.
“Many Syrians I know are scared to go back,” said Nassib. “They have been so worried because not only you need to worry about what’s going on in Syria and watch the news and cry for these people, but also you need to worry about your status because the time is ticking, the clock is ticking.”
The Department of Homeland Security is expected to announce details Thursday on how Syrians already visiting the U.S. may apply for the Temporary Protection Status. All applicants will have to undergo full background checks.
The U.S. government has issued similar “blanket” protections to foreign nationals in the past, including to Haitians following the earthquake of 2010 and most recently in 2011 to nationals of South Sudan.