Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Friday said she will grant special status to Syrians currently in the U.S., allowing them to stay here past their current visas while their home country remains in turmoil.
The move amounts to a sharp rebuke to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have cracked down on protesters.
"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," Ms. Napolitano said in a statement announcing the decision.
She said the full details for what is known as "Temporary Protected Status" will be announced next week.
TPS would apply to those already here in the U.S. It is a temporary immigration status that can be extended as long as the holder's home country is deemed unstable. Those granted TPS are allowed to get jobs during their time here.
Most of the other countries currently covered by TPS were hit by natural disasters, and the influx of people returning home was deemed a hardship for both the individuals and the countries themselves, who might be unable to handle them.
Honduras and Nicaragua have been on the TPS list since Jan. 5, 1999, after Hurricane Mitch did extensive damage.
But the law does allow for TPS to be granted in situations where the home country is facing armed conflict, which is the issue in Syria.
No such status was granted in the case of Libya, which faced a similar internal conflict last year — though some human rights groups had called for it.
In the case of Syria, a handful of lawmakers had pushed for the government to grant TPS.
"Our nation’s leadership in rallying the international community's condemnation of the Assad regime’s brutal campaign of repression is important," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. "Today’s decision complements that leadership by sending a clear and positive signal to the Arab world about our concern for the suffering of innocent Syrian civilians."
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