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Legal help for Syrian nationals with expiring visas

Kate Wells

For a few hours Saturday morning, the Troy Public Library became Syrian immigration base camp. Some two dozen Syrian nationals came out to a makeshift legal clinic held there. Their visas are about to expire or already have, and the federal government’s offering a special extension due to the crisis in their country.

But as pro-bono lawyers explained to one family after another, Syrians who fled escalating violence in the last three months aren’t eligible; they’ve already missed the program’s crucial window.

That window ended March 29, when the Obama administration declared Syrians in the United States could receive Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. That lets Syrians stay here even after their visas expire.

It’s a relief for people like Ghada. Her mother’s visa expires next month, but now there’s hope she can stay. 

“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," she said. " I think they can help us.”

Ghada only gave her first name, because her sister’s family is still in Damascus, and she doesn’t want the Syrian government to go after them.

Clearly, this special extension is some rare good news for the 3,000 Syrians expected to be eligible. The bad news is, you have to have been in the United States before the program started in March in order to apply.

But Almajar – again, not a full name – fled Syria with his wife in May. So they may be out of luck.

“I’m not able to apply for TPS. 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," he said.

Syrians almost certainly won’t be deported, even without papers.  But without that Temporary Protected Status, it’s harder to get work visas. And Almajar is desperate to feed his family.

“I can’t stay like this, waiting, for nothing," he said. "The situation maybe stay in Syria for years!”

Nobody knows exactly how many people are in Almajar’s position, but their numbers are likely growing as the violence worsens in Syria. Serene Zeni is a lawyer with a Michigan group called United for a Free Syria.

“That’s the largest problem that we have right now. The Temporary Protected Status was given to the Syrian people to protect them from having to go back and risk their lives. And because it stopped at March 29, it’s not being able to perform its function," she said.

But Detroit immigration attorney Bob Birach says the federal government has to strike the right balance.

“The idea here is to protect the people who were already here when the crisis arose, not to motivate people to come here after the fact. Because if they re-designate, the next time they designate TPS for another country, everybody who can from that country is going to start flood through the borders in the hope that there’ll be another designation," he said.

He thinks there’s probably a fifty-fifty shot the government will expand the program. 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 out of high-heeled sandals. She says a part of her just wants to go back to her family in Syria.

“You know, I’m one of them, so I gotta go through what they’re going too, you know? I haven’t seen my mom in eight years. It’s like I want to stay here, but at the same time see my mom," she said.

But if she goes back, she loses her shot at the special visa – and likely any chance of college in the United States.

“Like, I have a future, too, you know?" she said.

But when asked, whether or not that future will be in Syria, Rama hesitates.

“I do want to, but I don’t think there’s a future in Syria. Because they’re shutting down all the colleges. So…yeah.”

No one is certain what will happen in Syria, but even those who’ve made it to the United States still find themselves in limbo.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.