U.S. Anti-Terrorism Laws Hold Up Asylum Seekers

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007

More than seven months after the Bush administration promised help to a group of foreign nationals whose applications for asylum or refugee status have been hindered by strict interpretation of anti-terrorism laws, only a handful of the applicants have had their cases resolved.

In January, officials in the departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would soon sign waivers helping refugees in camps outside the United States who had been barred entry under the USA Patriot Act and the Real ID Act because they had provided "material support" to armed groups such as the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka -- even though some of those groups have not officially been designated terrorist organizations. The waivers would also help applicants who were forced to aid some terrorist groups under duress.

Advocates say that more than 1,000 asylum seekers have been blocked because of the strict interpretation of the anti-terrorism laws. Since the administration's promise, only four asylum seekers and five refugees have been resettled after fleeing ethnic and religious persecution in their countries and arriving in the United States.

"It is unconscionable that the Bush administration has so meagerly used its waiver authority," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the chief sponsor of legislation aimed at correcting material-support provisions. "These are victimized people who meet every other standard for admission as refugees, but they are excluded because they were forced against their will to provide material support to illicit groups.

"If the Department of Homeland Security won't use the authority Congress gave it, then Congress needs to fix the law so we can continue to be the safe haven for victims of persecution that the United States has always been."

The asylum seekers include a Sri Lankan fisherman who was kidnapped by Tamil Tiger rebels and forced to pay a $500 ransom; a Colombian nurse who was abducted and forced to give aid to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel organization; and a Burmese teacher who allowed unarmed members of the Chin National Front to hold a democracy discussion at his school, triggering an arrest, jailing and torture by the military government.

Some conservatives are particularly angered that the laws even affected former allies such as Laotian Hmong, Vietnamese Montagnards and Afghan members of the Northern Alliance who fought alongside U.S. soldiers against their governments.

Former Hmong fighters now living in California and Minnesota, and Montagnards in North Carolina, have complained that their applications for green cards were stalled because of the material support they gave U.S. forces and their own guerrilla armies during the Vietnam War.

"The overall situation on material support involving the Hmong is substantially the same," said Sophia DeWitt, a project director for the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries who helps Laotians resettle. "There has been no legislation . . . to make sure Hmong don't get caught up in the material-support bar. The president has not issued an administrative waiver for Hmong."

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said progress has been made in the seven months since Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that he would issue waivers for people who helped certain groups at gunpoint.

Knocke said 2,600 refugees who lived in camps worldwide have been resettled in the United States. Asylum advocates point out that the resettlements do not include people who had already arrived in the United States after fleeing persecution. They are still facing deportation or resettlement in their home or host countries. As they await decisions in immigration courts, "they are in limbo," said Natalie J. Kraner, an attorney for the ethnic Chin teacher in Burma who was arrested for allowing a democracy discussion.

"If I go back to Burma, they will arrest me right away and they will kill me," the teacher said through an interpreter. Like other asylum seekers, he declined to give his name, fearing that government troops would harm his family in Burma. "The government went to my house and asked my wife and my family why I wasn't there. My wife keeps moving around, staying in different places, trying to hide."

Steven Schulman said getting a waiver is also a life-and-death issue for his client, the Sri Lankan fisherman who paid half a ransom to the Tamil Tigers, escaped to the United States in 2005 and was rejected for asylum. Now the Tigers are seeking the balance on the ransom, and the Sri Lankan government is seeking him for giving money to the group.

"Do we want to send him back to a place where we know he will be killed because he gave $500 to a terrorist organization?" Schulman asked. "He will be killed by the government or the Tamil Tigers, depending on who gets him first."

Knocke said the attorneys should include that information in their court appeals, but the attorneys said they have done that repeatedly, without result.

"There are going to be obvious challenges when it comes to cases involving duress," Knocke said. "This is an area of enormous complexity in our immigration laws."

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