By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
And now, more information is surfacing about how many other people are caught in this strange catch-22. In September, the Department of Homeland Security—which oversees Immigration Services—told human rights advocates that about 400 people who had come to the U.S. from places around the world, and had been granted the protection of asylum or refugee status, were now being denied green cards because of information contained in their asylum applications.
In other words, these refugees from around the world were being denied green cards based on the same information that had won them asylum to begin with.
Many of the refugees had taken up arms against their leaders in U.S.-supported struggles: A Cuban who tried to overthrow the Castro regime was denied a green card for being a member of "a counterrevolutionary group"; others—such as members of the Democratic Unionist Party of Sudan, a partner in U.S. negotiations in the war-torn region—had been persecuted for their involvement in democratic opposition movements to dictatorial regimes; the Montagnards and the Hmong, who had fought for the U.S. during the Cold War, suddenly became terrorists—even though, just two months before, Congress had specifically issued a waiver for these ethnic groups.
Some people weren't actually members of any political group at all: An Afghani in Long Island was denied a green card because he had noted on his asylum application, filed more than a decade prior, that he had "scrubbed pots and pans" for the mujahideen.
"People's hearts were stopping," says Anwen Hughes, senior counsel for Human Rights First. For days after the round of letters hit mailboxes around the country, she fielded nonstop calls from immigrants and their lawyers.
"These are law-abiding people who have been here for years," says Melanie Nezer, an attorney with the refugee-rights group HIAS of America. "These are people we've already put through our procedures and our security clearances, and we decided that they had been persecuted. We gave them asylum and said, 'Welcome to the United States.' And now, our new law calls them terrorists, and we can't figure out how to remove the label."
Today, most of the people who received letters earlier this year are still in a kind of legal limbo. They've been put there by a government definition of "terrorism" that is so broad that it conflicts with other U.S. foreign policy priorities and, as a circuit court judge put it in 2006, "sweeps in not only the big guy, but also the little guy who poses no risk to anyone."
Ironically, this circuit court judge's decision was cited in Sachin Karmakar's letter, as if someone in Immigration Services knew that what he was doing made little sense, but could do nothing about it.
Sachin Karmakar is in his tiny office below an East Village photocopy center. Stacks of Joy Bangla, a weekly newspaper that he started publishing last January, are piled up on the left corner of his desk, as are unopened envelopes containing letters from avid readers. Like many Bangladeshis, the small 57-year-old is a political junkie who reads about a dozen local newspapers each day.
Using a print shop owned by ultra-Orthodox Jews, Karmakar distributes about 2,000 copies each week and leaves them in the storefronts and restaurants of Jackson Heights. In addition to the standard rundown of community events and Bangladeshi politics, the pages of Joy Bangla are filled with information about a single topic: the evils of Muslim fundamentalism. Karmakar includes news briefs identifying the connections between senior Bangladeshi politicians and homegrown militant groups. He pens editorials encouraging the residents of Jackson Heights to do things like oppose the OPEC cartel (it funds terrorism) and stand up for the State of Israel (a bastion of democracy in an extremist region). Because of his views on terrorism, he has spoken on a panel sponsored by conservative think tank America's Truth Forum with former CIA director James Woolsey.
Karmakar picks up the letter from Homeland Security and repeats the reasons given for his denial: He has "received military training"; he has "fought with the intention to cause death or serious bodily injury to the Pakistani army." He is shocked: Apparently, those were terrorist acts.
"I was in a war zone. There was no place to be neutral," he says. "I am being punished for exercising my God-given right to defend myself." And he can't understand why being a member of a group that had disbanded decades ago would disqualify him for a green card now. "For a person who has taken a stand against a barbaric form of fundamentalist Islam, it's a pretty insulting letter to get," he adds.
An ardent supporter of America and its institutions, Karmakar was looking forward to getting his green card and starting the process of becoming a citizen. Receiving the letter hasn't dampened his faith in the country, but his first reaction, he admits, was to suspect that somehow Muslim fundamentalists had managed to sabotage the immigration process. He's since changed his mind.
"This whole thing is just some mistake," he says. But he doesn't sound entirely sure about it.