Syria TPS Decision Provides Needed Relief, But Not Nearly Enough

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) welcomes reports that the Trump administration has decided to renew Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 6,000 Syrians living in the United States, while expressing dismay and consternation that this provision will not cover Syrians arriving after August 1, 2016.

In the lead up to this decision, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had the option of re-designating Syria for TPS, rather than merely renewing. A re-designation would have allowed more recent Syrian arrivals to apply for the status. In previous extensions, TPS for Syrian nationals has been re-designated as well as renewed.

It is difficult to imagine a country that more directly fits the criteria for re-designation than Syria. It is in the midst of an ongoing civil war that has generated the world’s largest contemporary refugee crisis and taken the lives of at least 400,000 people. The new administration’s refusal to take the step of re-designation is impossible to reconcile with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s admission that “the conditions upon which Syria’s designation was based continue to exist.”

The failure to re-designate Syria also provides further disturbing evidence that the administration grounds its TPS decisions in xenophobia and bias, rather than the individual country assessments that Congress intended when it created the TPS program in 1990.

In November, the Trump administration ended TPS for 59,000 Haitian nationals, despite the country’s ongoing natural disaster recovery and recent disease outbreaks. In early January, they likewise announced the end of TPS for nearly 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador, in the midst of extreme violence and other major social disruptions in that country. The NAACP has filed a lawsuit charging that the TPS decision for Haiti was racially motivated, citing abundant evidence of the administration’s prejudice against TPS holders.

As with these other TPS decisions, DHS’s refusal to re-designate Syria did not occur in a vacuum. President Trump campaigned on a pledge to institute a “Muslim Ban,” and his rhetoric on both the campaign trail and in office has made Syrian refugees a frequent target of fear-mongering.

Further, last week marked the one-year anniversary of the administration’s failed attempt to implement a discriminatory ban on refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. Despite being struck down by multiple courts, the Trump administration continues to impose new versions of the order on Syrian nationals, including new restrictions announced Monday that will make it harder for refugees from Syria and ten other countries to reach safety in the United States.

The administration’s political and biased use of TPS bodes ill for immigrant communities whose futures depend on DHS renewal decisions later this year. These include Nepal in April, Yemen in July, and Somalia in November. All of these countries are sites of ongoing recovery efforts from recent natural disasters or devastating armed conflicts to which the U.S. government has directly contributed.

UUSC urges the administration to honor the humanitarian purpose of the TPS program, rather than wield it as a nativist, political cudgel. In the meantime, Congress should act to pass permanent legislative solutions for long-term TPS holders, who are all members of our shared community.

An Interview With Rachel Freed, Vice President And Chief Program Officer

Carly Cronon spoke with Rachel Freed about her past work in human rights, what drew her to UUSC, and her most memorable moments with the organization thus far.

When and why did you first become involved in human rights work?

I grew up in a multicultural family and spent a lot of time visiting relatives in Southeast Asia, where I witnessed persistent inequalities and the dehumanization that went with it. It made me eager to develop my own understanding of how different political, social, economic and cultural forces shaped how and why people had certain rights over others.

Years later, a pivotal moment occurred during my junior semester abroad in India. I visited a rural fishing community that had been subject to fly ash pollution from a neighboring Exxon plant. Villagers in the community were mostly illiterate and had been told by the company that the fly ash was not harmful. In response to their concerns, the company-sponsored health clinics told villagers they were fine. This continued until a local nongovernmental organization working with a community member tested the water and found strains of harmful chemicals in the fish and streams.

Through outreach and education, the villagers organized the entire community, mobilized, and successfully demanded accountability. This experience helped me to understand the power of local communities and NGOs to catalyze vibrant and democratic social change movements.

What drew you to UUSC’s human rights work in particular?

My journey to UUSC was inspired by working with a UU congregation and community in a great struggle against injustice. When I graduated from law school, I worked for a civil rights firm in New York City, where the lead attorney humored my request to do pro bono work by connecting me to his UU congregation in Ridgewood, NJ. It was there that I met four passionate women who chose to spend their free time visiting detained asylum-seekers in detention centers. I offered to take one case, but then I started to get calls from the detention center on a daily basis.

There was one rather stark case I can remember – that of a Liberian refugee who escaped rebel forces during the reign of Charles Taylor, the former President and now convicted war criminal. After witnessing her siblings’ deaths, she fled the country and came to the United States. She lived here for almost seven years – just shy of the residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen – when a minor shoplifting incident landed her in detention, facing deportation. She had no representation, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her kids had been taken into child protective services. My UU friends began to visit her each week to connect with her children’s government rep, and to help piece together the documents in her case. Next began our three-year journey together. It was quite a trek from Brooklyn to the middle of New Jersey, but my UU friends never failed to ferry me from the commuter rail, or deliver documents and do a visitation when needed. Eventually, we found the psychologist who had treated this woman in detention; he testified about her PTSD, and we were able to win the case. She was released and reunited with her children after nearly four years of living in the detention center.

I share this story because it is about a few caring individuals and what they accomplished by offering their time and generosity and by organizing their community for a specific cause. This is what drew me, and continues to draw me, to UUSC – it is our collective approach and struggle for justice in this world—as inspired by our founders and continued onwards through the years.

What do you like most about your job?

At UUSC, we are lucky to work with some of the most remarkable human rights activists around the world – people who wake each day not quite sure of what their efforts may bring for their communities, but who continue on anyway because of their deep belief in love, equality, and humanity. We are able to draw tremendous strength and courage from our partners. I also feel incredibly fortunate to work with such talented, passionate, and committed colleagues – I learn so much from all of our staff on a daily basis.

What is one of your most cherished UUSC memories or success stories?

One of my most cherished moments occurred during my trip to Nepal a few months after the 2015 earthquake, while meeting with one of our partners focused on trauma resiliency. They were helping to train a cadre of local teachers working with rural Dalit youth who had received very little support since the earthquake. We were in a small classroom when one of the children began to break down – she had lost her mother during the earthquake and was struggling to take care of her little brother. One of the trainers immediately calmed her down, and they sat for a while, talking and focusing on her breathing and the present moment. She managed to calm down, stop crying, and soon was smiling and sharing with us her dreams for her brother and telling us about her hopes for herself. It was really moving. I felt proud to know that UUSC was able to help bring trauma resiliency skills to teachers serving Dalit children in a remote area that had been overlooked by larger recovery efforts.

What do you and your team look for in finding new UUSC partners?

UUSC’s approach is unique to most Western human rights organizations because we center the voices of communities and their values in our pursuit to advance human rights and transform unjust power structures. Our model focuses not on a community’s helplessness or lack of knowledge, but rather their assets and their solutions. Therefore, we generally look to partner with smaller, lesser-known organizations doing innovative work to transform and empower marginalized populations, often in the face of extreme and adverse circumstances. The process of selecting new partners involves working with those organizations to identify how UUSC’s financial and other resources can be best leveraged to further human rights on the ground. It also includes mapping stakeholders, identifying points of power, and thinking through how UUSC’s voice and prominence as a U.S.-based human rights organization can be used to instigate systemic change.

What is an upcoming UUSC initiative that you are particularly excited about?

I’m in the middle of packing my bags for a trip to Zagreb, Croatia to participate in a convening that brings together our partners in the Balkans who are helping to serve Syrian refugees. At this convening, our partners from Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia will be coming together to exchange information, build relationships, coordinate responses and collectively strategize on how to navigate the increasingly challenging political environments in which they operate. Our Balkans partners work in counties that have become increasingly hostile towards refugees, and their organizations are facing new government restrictions on their work. I’m excited to talk with them about their experiences and strategize ways UUSC can support their collective efforts during this critical time.

Global Compact for Migration Offers a Strong Signal for the Protection of Human Rights


L: Representatives from the Mission of Tuvalu to the UN and Palau’s Ministry of Immigration with Salote Soqo, UUSC’s Senior Program Leader R: Civil society groups meeting outside the conference venue

Delegations came together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

The stocktaking meeting for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which took place in Puerto Vallarta December 4-6, 2017 was “extraordinarily” positive. Extraordinary in the sense that during a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia around the world, there was great convergence amongst delegates to center the global compact on the protection of the rights of all migrants, and that the withdrawal of the United States from the compact did not seem to deter the spirit of the deliberations. What was seen instead was delegations coming together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

In addition to the unifying call for a human rights-centered compact that respects and empowers all migrants, other messages were loud and clear: the compact should be gender sensitive, respect migrant workers, protect children, counter xenophobia and the criminalization of migrants, encourage data-driven policies, ensure ethical business practices for migrants regardless of their status, uphold existing conventions and treaties, respect national sovereignty and above all else, increase the benchmark for addressing migration.

These are all overlying principles that we must support when it comes to governing all forms of migration, including climate-forced displacement. UUSC hopes that states will adopt these principles in earnest as they develop domestic and regional policies and we encourage states to combine compassion with urgency and diligence as they embark on this historic momentum.

The high number of non-state actors that turned up at the meeting and their engagement since the inception of the global compact has also been encouraging. From faith leaders to labor unions, and other civil society groups, like UUSC – our engagement with state delegations has made this process inclusive. Perhaps it was the scenery that made this meeting so pleasant or probably the fact that we were only a few weeks away from the holidays, but this is the standard that we hope the negotiations will adopt moving forward into 2018 and beyond.

UUSC Response to Supreme Court Action on Travel Ban

Yesterday, we learned that the Supreme Court would allow Trump’s “travel ban” to take effect while litigation challenging the executive order proceeds. The order bans travel to the United States from eight countries—six which are predominately Muslim. This is bitter news, and we are deeply disappointed by the Court’s decision.

Make no mistake: the Trump administration’s travel ban remains as legally and morally indefensible now as before. The current restrictions, announced in October, simply extend and expand the original “Muslim ban,” which has already been ruled unconstitutional by several appellate courts. As the President continues to espouse white supremacist rhetoric, he consistently makes his discriminatory and illegal motivations clear. However, we at UUSC are not deterred by his actions and will continue to build relationships that support and strengthen the work of our grassroots partners and other allies who are at risk under this Administration.

In the coming days, the Ninth and Fourth Circuits will hear challenges brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and allied organizations. Courts across the country have routinely struck the bans down as unconstitutionally targeting Muslims, and we look forward to a ruling on the merits of this case that will undoubtedly show that no one, not even the President, has the power to discriminate. UUSC has signed on to amicus briefs in these cases, reaffirming our commitment to welcoming immigrants and refugees and supporting them as they build their lives in the United States.

Collaborating to Serve Refugees in Challenging Times

This week UUSC organized a convening in Zagreb, Croatia of civil society organizations – many of them UUSC partners – serving Syrian refugees along the Balkan Route. Twenty-six representatives from 16 organizations came together to discuss how they can better coordinate their work, to problem-solve challenges that they face, and to expand their networks in neighboring countries in order to continue serving refugees. It was a privilege to provide the space and hear reflections and feedback from organizations on the front lines of this crisis, many of which experience scrutiny and harassment from their local governments. Because of those security interests we have chosen not to name specific participants.

On behalf of the UUSC family, Rachel Freed and I were grateful for the opportunity to spend time with this quality group of attorneys, case workers, and humanitarians striving to protect refugees in an environment where doing so is highly unpopular.

Participants of the UUSC Convening of Refugee Service Providers in the Balkans.

The groups who participated in the convening face extreme challenges: the closing space for civil society organizations in Eastern Europe, a rising tide of right-wing governments and factions, and general anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the region. When the Balkan Route closed in 2016, refugees headed for Western Europe were suddenly stuck in transit countries ill-equipped to serve the long-term needs of asylum-seekers. Further, both the refugees and the organizations providing services to them faced growing public hostility fueled by a misinformation media campaign similar to what we have recently seen in the United States. Governments are using increasingly aggressive, inhumane tactics to stop the tide of migrants, and there have been reports of border guards pouring water on freezing migrants in the middle of winter, using attack dogs, and other forms of violence and intimidation at border crossings.

As refugees wait for their claims to be processed they are often isolated from the rest of society in camps with varying degrees of accommodations and where their freedom of movement and access to services may be limited. In the camps, education opportunities for children are minimal, and psycho-social support is insufficient to deal with the trauma many have recently endured. The organizations who came together this week are among the only groups providing essential services ranging from legal assistance; protection against gender-based violence and the exploitation of unaccompanied minors; and mobile teams providing medical care. Case management is challenging and the formal systems of care and communication are insufficient. Gatherings, like the one held this week, help the organizations build their relationships—expanding informal networks which are frequently relied on to provide care in such a complex environment.

Participants break out in small groups to discuss the challenges they face and how they can problem solve and support one another.

As the rest of the world turns its attention to other crises, these 16 organizations continue on until the job of resettling and assimilating refugees is done. Much of the funding that was available at the height of the crisis has moved elsewhere and what remains often comes with conditions that challenge the integrity of the mission-driven service providers. As such, the financial support of UUSC members is particularly crucial and we appreciate the generosity so many have shown to ensure we’re able to make a positive difference where we can.

Read Danielle’s pre-trip blog post, Balkans Convening Aims to Offer Support to Partner Refugee Organizations.

The U.S. Has A Moral Responsibility to Support Refugees

UPDATE: On Wednesday, September 27, 2017 the White House officially announced to Congress that it will set the refugee admissions cap to a historic low of only 45,000 in FY2018. In response, UUSC calls on Congress to do everything in its power to raise the cap to at least 75,000. The administration’s efforts to shut the door on refugees as part of its xenophobic political agenda do not diminish the moral responsibility of the United States to provide refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution. We continue to stand with refugees, their families, and their communities and will continue to fight for their rights.

UUSC condemns the White House’s threats to cut the refugee admissions quota to a historic low of less than 50,000 and urges the administration to institute a refugee admissions quota of no less than 75,000 in FY2018. At a time when the world is in the midst of the largest global migration crisis on record, any decision to reduce the refugee admissions cap would be an affront to the moral responsibility of the United States to provide a safe-haven for those fleeing violence and insecurity.

Lowering the admissions level is not factually grounded and represents yet another example of the Trump administration’s attacks on refugee and immigrant communities that include the Muslim ban, supporting the RAISE Act, and the decisions to end the Central American Minors (CAM) and the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programs. Despite what the administration claims, these attacks on refugee and immigrant communities do not promote national security or the economy. They are only designed to further the Administration’s nativist political agenda. As recent leaks have revealed, the administration appears to recognize that there is no justification for reducing the quota and has even gone so far as to actively suppress evidence about the contributions refugees make to our economy in order to justify their plans to reduce refugee admissions.

It is also important to note that news of the administration’s potential cuts to the refugee quota came the same week that the Supreme Court rejected part of a Ninth Circuit decision temporarily halting Trump’s executive order commonly called the “Muslim ban.” This ruling means that refugees will no longer be protected from the ban, even if they have a preexisting agreement with a resettlement agency. While the lower court ruling regarding extended family members still applies, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the Muslim ban on October 10. In response, UUSC has signed onto an amicus brief calling on the Supreme Court to affirm the previous holdings of the Ninth and Fourth Circuits and block the ban from being enforced.

In recognition of the pattern of attacks on refugee and immigrant communities coming from the White House, it is critical that we take action in solidarity with refugees and immigrants. We encourage you to join us in supporting #NoMuslimBanEver, a national month action of online and in person events leading up to the Supreme Court hearing.

Please check our website, Twitter and Facebook accounts regularly for updates on how you can continue to join us to support refugee and immigrant communities and resist the Muslim ban.