By SUZANNE GAMBOA
The Associated Press
Friday, January 12, 2007; 7:34 AM
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is shifting policy to allow foreigners who have aided armed groups not considered terrorists to seek asylum or resettle in the United States.
Hundreds of foreigners already in the country _ including some who have been held for months or years in detention _ claim to have been forced to help violent groups. Many are fleeing violence from the groups they were forced to assist.
Tens of thousands of others, living abroad in refugee camps and elsewhere, also would be affected by the plan to ease restrictions set after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The applicants will have to show that they were forced to provide the support or did so "under duress" to be granted asylum or legal permanent residency. They must pass other intelligence and background checks as well.
Human rights, refugee and conservative groups drew media attention to refugee cases affected by the anti-terrorism laws following Sept. 11. The USA Patriot Act and REAL ID law, for example, prohibited asylum for a Sri Lankan fisherman who paid a $500 ransom to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who had kidnapped him.
The policy changes "will take care of a number of the most heart-wrenching cases," said Paul Rosenzweig, acting assistant Homeland Security Department secretary for international affairs. "It will take care of, for example, the case of women caught in the civil war strife in Africa, who under threat of or actually after having been raped and threat of death, did laundry for the military opponents of her tribe."
Rosenzweig said the administration decided to shift the policies after struggling with the "unintended consequences" of anti-terrorism laws. The new policy was worked out by the Homeland Security, Justice and State departments. The restrictions don't apply to people who have helped groups such as al-Qaida.
In a related change, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could as soon as Friday waive the material support restrictions for certain ethnic groups, allowing them to come to the U.S. as refugees. Members of those groups already in the U.S. would be allowed to seek asylum or legal permanent residency. She issued similar waivers in May and October for resettlement of Karen refugees from Myanmar who have been living in refugee camps in Thailand.
Ethnic groups that could benefit from the latest round of waivers would include the Karen in the Tham Hin refugee camp in Thailand whose villages were burned and whose members endured rapes and forced labor.
Rice's action will assist other ethnic groups who resisted the Myanmar military, such as the Chin, and extend help to two older organizations, the Mustangs, a Tibetan group and alzadas of Cuba, as well as the Hmong and Montanards, southeast Asian ethnic groups that assisted the U.S. in Vietnam.
Rosenzweig said the administration also is proposing legislation to change a law that prohibits people of certain ethnic groups who participated in armed combat from seeking asylum or legal status. The law has separated some families because a father might have used arms to defend a family. While the family members could apply to resettle in the U.S., the father could not.
"We're convinced after working this very hard, this will not create any appreciable risk to the national security or homeland security of the United States and at the same time allow us to provide the traditional humanitarian relief that the United States is known for," he said.
Eleanor Acer, director of refugee protection for Human Rights First, said the changes would still leave many refugees at risk.
"If indeed DHS does finally set up a process for refugees to be exempted from these provisions, it will be a welcome step forward. It is, however, a long overdue step _ and a step that fails to cover many of the most vulnerable refugees," Acer said.
On the Net:
Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov
Secretary of State: http://www.state.gov
Human Rights First: http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/