U.S. antiterrorism laws causing delays for refugees

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By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009

U.S. antiterrorism laws are being applied so strictly that thousands of refugees who fled persecution in their home countries and appear to pose no threat to the United States have had their asylum and immigration applications denied or indefinitely delayed, according to a report released Wednesday.

The study, by Human Rights First, a nonpartisan organization based in New York and Washington, documented cases in which people have been inexplicably labeled terrorists.

Sachin Karmakar, a Bangladeshi advocate for the rights of religious minorities, was recently granted asylum after facing political and religious harassment. But his application for permanent residency faces indefinite delay because he took part in his nation's successful struggle for independence in 1971.

A teenage girl who was forced to become a child soldier at 12 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and who faces threats for speaking out against her captors has had her asylum application snagged on the grounds that during the period she was kidnapped, she was a member of a terrorist group.

A refugee from Burundi, whom Human Rights First identified only by his first name, Louis, was detained for 20 months, although an immigration judge thought he qualified for asylum because he had provided "material support" to a terrorist organization when an armed rebel group robbed him of $4 and his lunch.

The report found that more than 18,000 refugees and asylum-seekers have been affected since 2001. Of those, at least 7,500 cases remain unresolved. Most involve people already in the United States who have filed for permanent residency or are trying to bring over family members. The Department of Homeland Security has placed their cases on indefinite hold rather than deporting those involved.

However, an undetermined number of people in similar circumstances who, for technical reasons, are pursuing their cases in immigration courts are at risk of being deported.

The report's author, Anwen Hughes, found that efforts by Congress and the Bush and Obama administrations to address the issue by creating a waiver system have moved at a glacial pace and continue to leave out huge categories of immigrants.

"It's been a very slow and unworkable process," Hughes said. Meanwhile, she said, "for a lot of people, the delay is not harmless. We have clients who are here but whose wives or children are stranded in very difficult, dangerous situations."

Brandon Prelogar, special adviser for refugee and asylum affairs in the Department of Homeland Security, is scheduled to speak about the issue on a panel in Washington on Thursday. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The current situation is rooted in legal provisions dating to 1990. However, the Patriot Act of 2001 considerably expanded the scope of those affected by barring entry to refugees and asylum-seekers who were supporters not only of terrorist groups designated or listed by the State Department but also of "undesignated terrorist organizations." The term can be applied to almost anyone who has used force in self-defense against a military regime that does not permit peaceful opposition.

Immigration officials have broadened the provision even further by applying it retroactively to organizations that no longer exist or that renounced violence decades ago.

Those caught in the net have included members of Afghan militias that fought against the Soviet invasion with U.S. support; groups that fought the ruling military junta in Burma; virtually every Ethiopian and Eritrean political party past and present; the South Sudanese armed opposition movement that, after years of civil war, is the ruling party of an autonomous area; and the main democratic opposition party in Zimbabwe, whose leader has been praised by President Obama for his courage in standing up to that nation's strongman.

Although the government has offered waivers in some cases, the law continues to entangle even people who engaged in nonviolent activities on behalf of undesignated terrorist organizations -- such as giving speeches, distributing fliers or offering medical care -- or who provided minimal contributions, such as taking food to a relative in jail.

Hughes said that other immigration laws prohibit entry to immigrants who have violated human rights or are a danger to the United States. She said she hopes the report will persuade Congress to remove the "undesignated terrorist organization" provision from the law.


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