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Washington – The Trump administration is expected to let nearly 7,000 Syrians remain in the United States for another 18 months but won’t let more Syrian citizens apply for the special protection program, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Under a humanitarian program known as “Temporary Protected Status,” thousands of Syrians have been allowed to avoid returning to their war-wracked country of origin, but the current program is set to expire on March 31. Two U.S. officials said the Homeland Security Department will extend the protections, but won’t re-designate Syria as having conditions that prevent its citizens from returning safely.

That means Syrians already receiving the protections can stay for at least another year and a half, but more can’t apply once the current program expires in March, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to discuss the decision ahead of a formal announcement and demanded anonymity. A Homeland Security spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The expected decision 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. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stressed that she believes such protections should be temporary, and Trump has advocated resettling Syrian refugees closer to home.

Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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