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Syrian Jewish immigrants on road to U.S. citizenship

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NEW YORK, July 11 (JTA) — After three years at New York’s Yeshiva University, Marko Alsaygh received a letter explaining that he would lose $4,000 annually in financial aid because he didn’t have a green card.

Now Alsaygh, a 22-year-old Syrian immigrant living in Brooklyn, is one step closer to obtaining his residence and work permit — a necessary step on the road to citizenship — as a result of legislation in Congress. On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed overwhelmingly by voice vote a bill that would grant permanent resident status to up to 2,400 Syrian Jews who came to the United States in the early 1990s.

The immigrants have long enjoyed asylum status, which allows them to work and travel, but with some limitations.

In New York State, where an overwhelming number of these immigrants live, individuals who have asylum status like the Syrian Jews cannot work as doctors, dentists or pharmacists, said Maurice Hedaya, the treasurer of the Sephardic Voters League in Brooklyn.

Even those legally qualified for jobs can face trouble.

“I’ve heard stories that employees will look” at the work papers that Syrians and others with asylum status have and say, “This isn’t a green card,” said Roberta Herche, the assistant executive vice president for immigrant services at the New York Association for New Americans.

In addition, the waiting exerts a psychological toll on this largely observant community.

“No one wants to feel in limbo,” said Rachel Zelon, the associate executive vice president for program operations for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York.

The asylum status stems from an agreement made between the U.S. government and Syrian President Hafez Assad in 1992.

After several years of lobbying, Assad allowed the immigrants to come to the United States in 1992, but only if they were designated as tourists, rather than refugees.

Assad didn’t want to admit that Syria was persecuting Jews — even though “they were really refugees in the true sense of the word because they were living in a fishbowl surrounded by the Syrian security police,” said Mark Handelman, executive vice president of NYANA.

Once in the United States, the immigrants received asylum status, which qualified them to apply for green cards under a quota system that limits acceptances to 10,000 a year.

Under the quota system, about 30 percent of the approximately 4,000 Syrian Jews have received green cards, which in turn allows them to apply for citizenship, according to Hedaya.

Some of the immigrants have since moved to Israel.

The experience of Alsaygh, who immigrated to the United States in 1994, suggests that bureaucracy may be part of the problem. His father and his brother have received their green cards from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but he and his mother have not.

Hedaya said he first realized the scope of the problem a few years ago, when he attended prayer services in Brooklyn and learned that many of the worshipers hadn’t received green cards.

With the help of other Jewish activists, Hedaya organized a letter- writing campaign and meetings with U.S. legislators, including Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Anthony Weiner, both Democrats from New York.

“We spoke to scores of people,” he said.

The measure was introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Rick Lazio (R- N.Y.), a candidate for U.S. senator from New York, and co-sponsored by several other members of Congress from New York.

A similar measure is expected to be introduced in the Senate soon.

“We started 12 or 13 years ago,” said Hedaya. “So it’s nice that we try to finish it.”

If the bill is eventually signed into law, it “would mean a lot,” said Alsaygh, a senior at Y.U. who hopes to attend medical school. “It’s the beginning of achieving my goal as opposed to getting stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

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