Refugees to U.S. Get a Few Breaks from Washington


Refugee camp, Afghanistan. Photo (cc) Tracy Hunter.

One the most disastrous and lasting consequences of the Patriot Act of 2001 and its extremely broad definitions of terrorism has been the impact on people seeking asylum in the United States. We wrote about a pretty extreme case last year, in which a former member of a U.S.-backed group of Afghani fighters was denied a U.S. green card because his past actions were, under the Act, considered terrorist activity, even though they were conducted for our side.

The situation had been escalating: The number of refugees accepted into the country each year dropped during the Bush Administration from around 75,000 to 28,000. Some of us were wondering how the refugee problem would be handled under the Obama Administration.

It turns out there have recently been a few encouraging signs of change, in an Obama Administration appointment and in a Supreme Court decision.

Some of the most egregious (and, frankly, ridiculous) cases have been those of people who had been forced — literally — to give support to terrorist organizations, and were then barred from the country on those grounds. (We wrote, for example, about the guy who was kidnapped by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and had to pay ransom money to free himself. He was barred from the U.S. on the grounds that he had given “material support to a terrorist organization.”)

In March, the Supreme Court decided to reverse a similarly skewed immigration board decision about an Eritrean man who was forced to serve as a guard in a military prison where inmates were tortured and killed. The immigration board had rejected that man’s asylum bid on the ground that he had persecuted others. It didn’t matter that his acts were performed under duress.

While this man was not accused of being a member of a terrorist organization (he very well could have been, by the vague definitions in the Patriot Act), legal experts say the case — in which the Court ruled that forced support does not qualify as material support — will have implications for other people who were denied asylum on terrorist grounds.

On the government side, President Obama has appointed David Martin to be head counsel to the Department of Homeland Security. Martin, who used to be the leading lawyer for immigration services under Clinton, understands very well the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers: he wrote the most widely-used law school textbook on asylum. While he is strongly concerned with fraudulent asylum applications, many immigrant’s rights advocates and peers say he is very fair.

Since no one is going to repeal the Patriot Act anytime soon, the question is how Martin will redirect policy from within the Department of Homeland Security so that it behaves more reasonably toward asylees and refugees. Meanwhile, there are still a lot of pending legal cases to be dealt with and a lot of persecuted people waiting for a chance to come here.