The Trump administration said Wednesday that it would allow nearly 7,000 Syrians to remain in the United States for another 18 months but won't let more Syrian citizens apply for the special protection program.
Under a humanitarian program known as "Temporary Protected Status," thousands of Syrians have been allowed to avoid returning to their war-torn country of origin, but the current program is set to expire on March 31, forcing a decision on whether to extend.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen said "ongoing armed conflict and extraordinary conditions" justified the extension to Sept. 30, 2019.
The relief at being spared 18 months is tinged with disappointment that applicants must have been in the United States since Aug. 1, 2016, disqualifying newer arrivals.
The decision will be felt hardest in California, Michigan and Texas, top destinations for the roughly 86,000 Syrians living in the United States.
It follows a contentious debate within the Trump administration about whether to cut off the program, with immigration hardliners in the White House urging a total halt to the program while the State Department and other agencies argued for continuing it.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump has cut off the special protections for citizens of several countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, after determining that once-perilous conditions no longer preclude citizens from going home.
Yet Syria remains entangled in a bloody civil war that shows no signs of being resolved in the near future. Although the Islamic State group that once controlled much of Syria has been squeezed from almost all of its former territory, armed opposition groups continue to fight with each other, with Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and with extremist groups that continue to pose a threat across Syria. U.S. military forces are active both on the ground and in the skies above Syria.
The Trump administration has faulted previous U.S. administrations for letting foreigners stay in the United States long past when the natural disasters or other emergencies that necessitated the special protections have been resolved. Nielsen stressed that she believes such protections should be temporary, and Trump has advocated resettling Syrian refugees closer to home.
The U.S. created Temporary Protected Status in 1990 to provide a safe haven from countries affected by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, war and other disasters, and it currently shields several hundred thousand people from 10 countries.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.