Freedom Fighters Need Not Apply
At a hearing in April, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was asked about an Iraqi Kurd who had served as an interpreter for Marines in Iraq for nearly four years but had been branded "a member of a terrorist organization" and denied permanent residence in the United States because of his past membership in the Kurdish Democratic Party. Chertoff responded: "With respect to Mr. Ahmad, the translator, I waived the objection to his getting a green card yesterday, so we're out of Alice in Wonderland."
As it so happened, 10 days before Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Chertoff this question, the story of Saman Kareem Ahmad -- an extreme but hardly isolated instance of the Department of Homeland Security ruling that former freedom fighters are in fact terrorists -- had been told in a front-page story in this newspaper.
The timing was not lost on Leahy, who asked Chertoff: "Is each of these cases going to require a major story in The Washington Post or . . . a congressional hearing before they get resolved?"
Unfortunately, they may.
For several years, many genuine refugees and asylum seekers have been blacklisted by the USA Patriot Act's overly broad definition of a "terrorist organization," a domestic determination with global consequences. In fiscal 2007, about 15,000 refugees were ruled ineligible to enter the United States on grounds related to terrorism, according to International Rescue Committee estimates. Publicity has led to exceptions being made for some refugees and some grounds for rejection being waived, but the problem is far from resolved.
While traveling for the International Rescue Committee last month, I encountered an Iraqi Shiite whose two brothers answered President George H.W. Bush's 1991 call to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Both were killed. Despite his family's sacrifices on behalf of U.S. efforts to establish democracy in Iraq, this man was not admitted to the United States because of information in his file suggesting (erroneously) that he, too, participated in the uprising. After DHS interviewers deemed him a "member of a terrorist organization," he was resettled to Sweden.
The problem is not just that freedom fighters cannot gain access to the United States. Denials of permanent residence are wrecking the lives of people who have been living in this country for years, many of whom were granted refugee status precisely because they were freedom fighters. In September, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it had denied nearly 700 of these green card applications this year because of this bar.
The denials have included that of a Burmese lawyer who had smuggled anti-government brochures into Burma from Thailand; an Afghan owner of a muffler shop in Flushing, N.Y., who fought on the side of the mujaheddin; and an Afghan man who -- just like the CIA -- assisted the mujaheddin by supplying it with clothes, food, medicine and money.
Thomas Ragland, a lawyer for Ahmad, has another Kurdish Iraqi client who served as an interpreter for U.S. troops and is accused of being a member of the same supposedly "terrorist" Kurdish Democratic Party -- whose representatives now sit in the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad. Because this man worked with support teams for U.S. Army intelligence and his family is still in Iraq, he is afraid to have his name published. His former American employers have sent letters of support, Ragland told me, but have said nothing publicly. This man lives in an abyss, afraid to speak out and unable to make a life in either Iraq or the United States.
Such treatment, of course, provokes bitterness. When Kun Garbang, a Sudanese refugee who came to the United States with his wife and children in 2001, applied for a green card recently, he was told by the DHS: "Due to your being a current member and representative of [the Sudan People's Liberation Movement] you are inadmissible." Garbang went to a library in Sioux Falls, S.D., and wrote to the DHS, in almost perfect English, that before his two sons joined the Marines, they "asked my permission. This is what I told them:"
" 'Children, there was a time that all the world said no to you including your own country but the United States gave us a shelter. We have to defend this country and it is our responsibility.' "
One of Garbang's sons has served in Iraq for more than two years. "Terrorists," Garbang wrote, "do not send their children to fight for the United States."
The writer is a senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee.