When Ciaran Ferry walked out the rusting gates of Northern Ireland's most notorious jail four years ago, he never expected to see the inside of a prison cell again.

Ferry, a member of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army, had served just over a third of his 22-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder and arms offenses. Along with more than 400 other paramilitary prisoners, the 28-year-old was granted early release from the Maze prison as part of the Good Friday peace accord, the U.S.-brokered political agreement that ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Ferry and his new wife, Heaven, an American who had written to him during his incarceration, decided to settle in the United States after police told them his name had been discovered on the hit list of a rival paramilitary group. On an immigration form filled out when he arrived, Ferry ticked the 'no' box in the section asking if he had ever been convicted of a crime.

Ferry's past caught up with him when he attended a green card interview in January 2003. Arrested by immigration officers, he has spent the past 21 months in two Colorado prisons fighting deportation. His legal team argues that he is a law-abiding family man who would face threats and harassment if forced to return to Northern Ireland.

But to the Department of Homeland Security, Ferry and several other former Irish paramilitaries facing deportation are convicted terrorists who lied about their criminal pasts to enter the United States. The issue has galvanized Irish American groups, many of whom believe the Bush administration is unfairly hounding people such as Ferry to demonstrate progress in the war on terrorism.

Their supporters contend that many of those now targeted by the Department of Homeland Security lived openly in this country for years before anti-terrorism laws were introduced after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"I think we're in a predicament, given the changes in the law since 9/11 and all that transpired out of 9/11," said Malachy McAllister, a former member of the paramilitary Irish National Liberation Army who served three years in prison in Northern Ireland for his involvement in a plot to kill two police officers. He fled to Canada and then the United States in the mid-1990s, after loyalist paramilitaries shot up his home in Belfast. Now living in New Jersey, McAllister will find out later this year whether his petition for asylum has been successful.

Irish paramilitaries have sought refuge in the United States for decades, long before the period of violence known as "the Troubles" erupted in the late 1960s. Some have slipped into the country undetected and live quietly as illegal immigrants. Others have married American citizens. A handful have been granted political asylum.

The current debate hinges on the role paramilitaries played in Northern Ireland's protracted conflict between loyalists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom and republicans fighting for a united, independent Ireland. Those facing deportation, for the most part former republican paramilitaries, justify their failure to declare previous convictions by insisting that they were soldiers in a war, not terrorists; political prisoners, not criminals -- the latter a distinction that can strengthen claims for asylum. Some contend they were unfairly convicted.

Immigration authorities, however, say it is up to the government to decide whether a conviction was criminal or political.

"The whole thing boils down to the ideological argument of whether they were political prisoners or terrorists. And 'terrorism' is a word that is full of subjectivity," said Karen McElrath, an associate professor of sociology at Queen's University in Northern Ireland and author of a book on the subject.

There is no doubt in Heaven Ferry's mind about how to categorize her husband.

"What Ciaran did was not terrorist-related," she said. "He was released from jail under a political agreement -- that makes it very obviously political. This is a guy who came here wanting peace, wanting a new quiet life with his family, and they go after him? They're just too afraid to go after the real terrorists."

The government cannot afford to make such distinctions, countered Robert S. Leiken, of the Immigration and National Security Programs at the Nixon Center, a Washington-based foreign policy research group.

"We have to say that we are opposed to terrorism of any shape or form. Terrorism overrides every other consideration now. The government's first concern is not going to be pleasing the Irish American lobby; it's going to be national security," he said.

In an attempt to bolster the credibility of their case, many of those fighting deportation refer to the decision in 2000 by then Attorney General Janet Reno to drop deportation proceedings against nine IRA members, several of whom had been convicted of crimes including murder, hijacking and bombing offenses, in a move the Clinton administration said would advance the peace process in Northern Ireland. In a statement, however, the Department of Homeland Security said that decision had no bearing on current cases.

"This order applied only to these specific individuals and did not create a precedent for other individuals with similar convictions," according to the statement released by the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau.

Some noted with particular interest one deportation ruling in California earlier this year, believing it could affect future cases. Immigration judge Rose Peters ordered that Sean O'Cealleagh, jailed for his part in the 1988 murder of two British army corporals in Northern Ireland, be allowed to remain permanently in the United States after deciding that his conviction was "purely political."

In a move criticized by loyalist politicians in Northern Ireland, she also described those released early under the Good Friday Agreement as former political prisoners, a qualification not contained in the accord itself.

Others, however, consider that ruling unique, given the current political climate in the United States. They acknowledge that although the argument that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter may have worked in the past, attitudes have hardened in the past three years.

"The fallout from the 9/11 attacks has had a real impact on cases similar to mine," said McAllister. "The word 'terrorism' is bandied about a lot these days, but we're different. Any crimes we were involved in were politically motivated."

McAllister's deportation battle has attracted interest from several members of Congress, many of whom backed a private bill, introduced by Rep. Steven R. Rothman (D-N.J.), to allow McAllister and his family to stay in the United States.

"I think this is simply a way of trying to balance the rounding up of Arab men with others so they can say we're going after all terrorists and not differentiating on a country-to-country basis," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.)

"Malachy and the others gave up violence years ago and represent no threat to the security of the United States. If they are putting these old battles behind them in Ireland, why are we conjuring them up over here in the guise of fighting terrorism?" Engel asked.

The Department of Homeland Security rejected claims that former Irish paramilitaries are being singled out after the Sept. 11 attacks. "The statistics and basic facts do not bear that out whatsoever," said Dean Boyd, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Our efforts are designed to strictly enforce the law. The law states that those with prior convictions for certain types of crimes overseas are not allowed entry to the U.S. That is a law that has been around pre-9/11," Boyd said.

In a joint letter released last November, representatives of a dozen Irish American groups accused the Bush administration of reneging on a 2000 Republican platform pledge that called for "a review of issues of deportation and extradition arising prior to the [Good Friday] accord."

Pressed on the issue in a recent interview with Irish America magazine, President Bush defended current legislation as "appropriate and important to the United States' national security."

"My administration has taken great care to ensure that individuals are not unfairly or arbitrarily classified as terrorists or otherwise unfairly denied admission, and will continue to uphold high standards of accuracy and fairness," Bush said.

Those assurances do nothing for Heaven Ferry as she struggles to explain her husband's absence to their 3-year-old daughter, Fiona. "It just doesn't make sense," she said. "How is America safer without Ciaran Ferry? Are we really safer now that he hasn't held his daughter in a year and a half?"

Ciaran Ferry, shown with daughter Fiona, is battling deportation to his native Northern Ireland because of a conviction while part of a paramilitary group.