New Syrian Refugees In U.S. Too Late For Special Visa

Jul 24, 2012
Originally published on July 24, 2012 6:19 pm
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Thousands of Syrians are fleeing the violence in their country and some are coming to the U.S. Those who arrive before a certain deadline are eligible for a special status. It allows them to live and work here while the conflict continues back home. But as Kate Wells of Michigan Radio reports, others are being told they're too late to qualify.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN#1: (Foreign language spoken)

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: On a recent Saturday, a makeshift legal clinic at the Troy Public Library became a Syrian immigration base camp. Troy is in southeast Michigan, home to the largest Arab community in the U.S. Pro bono lawyers move from one family to the next, switching between English and Arabic.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm willing to help this case.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah. We can work together on it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: That'd be great.

WELLS: Back in March, the Obama administration declared Syria too dangerous for residents to return to, and that made them eligible for something called temporary protected status or TPS. It allows them to stay and work in the U.S. even after their visas expire, and that is a huge relief for people like Ghada. Her mother's visa expires next month, but now, there's hope she can stay.

GHADA: With the situation as bad as it is back home, I don't like her to leave. I like to try to get her stay longer until things improve back home. I think they can help us.

WELLS: Ghada gives only her first name because her sister's family remains in Damascus, and she fears reprisals from the Syrian government. Clearly, this special status is some rare good news for the 3,000 Syrians expected to be eligible. The bad news? They have to have been in the U.S. when the program started in March in order to be eligible. So Almajar - again, not a full name - fled with his wife from Syria in May, so they can't get the special status.

ALMAJAR: So I'm trying to find another way to stay. My family is not in a good situation in Syria. We are from the countryside. I'm not going back to Syria so my wife pregnant as well. So I don't know what to do.

WELLS: Immigration officials are not going to go after Syrians for deportation right now, and Almajar could try to get that golden ticket: asylum. But he has to meet a higher burden of proof that he'll be persecuted if he goes back home, and that's why temporary protected status is so useful. Without it, Almajar doesn't know how he'll support his family.

ALMAJAR: I can't stay like this, waiting for nothing. The situation in Syria maybe stay in for years.

WELLS: Nobody knows exactly how many people are in Almajar's position, but their numbers are likely growing as the violence worsens in Syria. Bob Birach is a Detroit immigration attorney volunteering his time at this clinic. He says there are no easy answers.

BOB BIRACH: The idea here is to protect the people that are already here when the crisis arose, not to motivate people to come in after the fact.

WELLS: Yet even those who are already eligible have some tough choices to make. Rama just graduated from high school. Today, she's wearing a red head scarf, and her orange pedicure peeks through her high-heeled sandals. She says a part of her just wants to return to her family in Syria.

RAMA: I haven't seen my mom for eight years. She's in Syria stuck with my brothers and sister. It's like I want to stay here but at the same time see my mom.

WELLS: But if she goes back, she loses her shot at the special status, and she wants to attend college in the U.S.

RAMA: I don't think there's a future in Syria because they're shutting down all the colleges, so yeah.

WELLS: There are a lot of relieved Syrians in the U.S. right now, thanks to this special status. But for those who just got here, the limbo continues. For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.