IOWA CITY — Since stepping foot on frozen U.S. soil in 2012, Monzer Shakally has graduated high school, enrolled at the University of Iowa, joined a fraternity, landed a job and been accepted into the UI College of Dentistry.
But his plans to pursue a graduate degree come with an asterisk.
For most of his stay in this country, the Syrian native has been on “temporary protected status.” The U.S. Department of Homeland Security grants that status to people from countries that have been deemed unsafe for various reasons like war or natural disaster.
His request for political asylum — his pathway to citizenship — has been in limbo for years. Over the Thanksgiving break, Shakally learned the government intends to deny his application. He’s sent a rebuttal, but he’s mostly hanging his hopes on Syria’s temporary protected status in the United States — which expires March 31.
The Trump administration could extend protections for those from Syria, which remains in the throes of civil conflict. Or — as it has for other countries recently — it could end the status.
That would leave Shakally — and 6,916 Syrians like him on U.S. temporary protected status — scrambling. The government has to make a decision by the end of this month on what it will do by the deadline.
“If this status was to expire, for a lot of people who won’t be able to find any other alternatives, they’re going to be forced to go back to Syria,” said Shakally, now 21. “It’s basically being sent to their death.”
As of 2017, 10 countries were on the list for temporary protected status in the United States, benefiting 436,869 individuals, according to government statistics. Though the status is meant to be temporary, some of the protections have been in place since the late 1990s.
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Past administrations have tended to make holistic assessments of countries in deciding whether to renew protections, not focusing solely on the original reasons for the designation, according to Sarah Pierce, associate policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
“This administration is really sticking very strictly to the wording of the statute and really just analyzing the conditions in these countries compared to what they were when they were designated and their reason for designation,” Pierce said.
The Trump administration recently terminated protections for Sudan, which received its original designation for civil conflict in 1997; Nicaragua, which was designated in 1999 following a hurricane; Haiti, designated in 2010 after a devastating earthquake; and earlier this week El Salvador, which landed its designation in 2001 after earthquakes.
Only South Sudan, originally designated in 2011 for civil conflict, has received an extension under the Trump administration. But Pierce said a renewal for Syria is not out of the question.
“With Syria, the original reason for designation in 2012 was civilian conflict, and that’s still an issue in Syria,” she said. “So I could definitely see the administration extending Syria’s TPS. But it will be kind of a test of how tolerant this administration is of the TPS benefit.”
Shakally continues to hold out hope for asylum, even if Syria loses its designation. Until the government responds to his rebuttal, he’d be allowed to stay here as “pending asylum.”
“But that’s a very unsafe status,” he said.
If he loses his appeal and if Syria loses its designation, Shakally might have to leave.
“At that point, I have no idea,” he said. “Whatever countries are left in the world.”
A return to Syria would get him arrested at the border, he believes. As a teenager in his hometown of Damascus, Shakally protested government forces — waving flags and burning tires, wearing masks. Eventually, he was arrested, beaten, threatened and interrogated until his father succeeded in pleading for his freedom.
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But Shakally was “blacklisted” and ordered to serve as an informant. After one of his brothers was arrested and tortured, his parents made the boys flee.
Because he’s a UI student and has been admitted to the dental college, Shakally could try for a student visa. But that comes with several obstacles, including the requirement he have a passport. To get one, Shakally would have to reach out to the very government he fled.
Even with a student visa, Shakally would have to pay international student tuition, which — when paired with fees, room and board and other associated costs — is expected to top $98,000 a year. He recently applied for a loan but was rejected because of his unstable legal status.
Yet Shakally knows other Syrians living under the temporary protections have even fewer options. He’s also advocating for nationals of Honduras and Nepal, which have expiration dates this spring.
“For a lot of other people who are not in my student situation — people who have already been done with school or people who are younger — a lot of them I’m assuming are going to try to apply for asylum,” Shakally said. “But lots won’t be eligible.”
According to the coalition, violence in Syria — including daily airstrikes — killed more than 10,000 civilians in 2017. Since 2011, more than 500,000 Syrians were killed and more than 5 million fled.
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