Anti-Terrorism Laws Impeding Asylum Seekers

Since Sept. 11, the U.S. government has broadened the definition of a terrorist group and what constitutes support for terrorism. Now, refugee advocates say this is wrongly denying hundreds of people asylum in the United States and could affect thousands more.

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Along with the war on terror abroad, the U.S. government has been carrying out a legal crackdown. It has broadened the definition of a terrorist group and what constitutes support for terror. Now refugee advocates say this is wrongly denying hundreds of people asylum in the U.S. and it could affect thousands more waiting to have their cases heard. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has the story.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: A few years ago a young teacher in Burma grew tired of her second-class status. She's an ethnic Chin-Christian, a group frequently discriminated against by Burma's authoritarian government. The woman had also taken part in student demonstrations that were brutally repressed. Her lawyer, Edward Neuville (ph), says the woman considers herself a democracy activist and at one point left the country and began supporting an opposition group, the Chin National Front.

EDWARD NEUVILLE: She provided, you know, a meager amount of $50 here and there.

LUDDEN: He says she also mailed the front binoculars and a camera but they never arrived.

NEUVILLE: They were intercepted and as a result of the interception, the Burmese Regime were able to track her down and search her house in Burma.

LUDDEN: The woman applied for asylum in the U.S. Last year, an immigration Judge ruled that she qualified, but he ordered her deported anyway because he said her donations to the Chin National Front were material support for terror. This, even though the front is not on the U.S. list of terror organizations, and even though it's fighting a regime the U.S. considers one of the most repressive in the world.

DAVID COLE: I think it's indicative of how far we have overreacted in the wake of 9/11.

LUDDEN: David Cole of Georgetown University says the Patriot Act and last year's real I.D. legislation broadly defined terrorist organization. Essentially, that can now be any group of two or more people, which uses any kind of weapon to inflict damage to person or property.

What's more, those laws restricted any defense for aiding such groups. Someone must testify that they did not know, nor could they have known the groups used weapons, and Cole says there's no exception for legitimate combat.

COLE: It's so broad that someone who made a donation to the African National Congresses Anti-Apartheid activities would be deportable.

LUDDEN: This month, the United Nations Refugee Agency suspended its program to resettle ethnic Chin-Burmese refugees here because so many cases were being denied or held up. Last year, a program to resettle Columbians also ground to a halt. Melanie Nezer (ph) of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society says the issue there was payments to Fark Guerillas.

That group is on the U.S. list of terror organizations, but Nezer says the payments were protection money made under threat of violence or even ransom paid for the return of kidnapped relatives.

MELANIE NEZER: They pay that ransom and the U.S. government decides they are inadmissible to the U.S. because they have provided material support, i.e. money, to terrorists even though they've done it to protect the life of a loved one and do not support the goals of the organization.

LUDDEN: There is no exception in the law for action done under duress. Nezer says this means that actual victims of terrorism are being accused of aiding terror and asylum seekers from a number of countries are being caught up in this conundrum. The law does allow the Secretary of State or Attorney General to personally grant a waiver, but so far, that's not happened. Bill Strassberger (ph) of the Department of Homeland Security says guidelines for how to use this authority are in the works.

BILL STRASSBERGER: These agencies — DHS, State Department, the Justice — are working actively to develop a process to exercise discretion, but until we have developed that process, we will hold those cases, the refugee and asylum cases that turn on that point.

LUDDEN: Refugee advocates complain the problem's been known for nearly 18 months. They hope a waiver system is in place by March. Otherwise, they say they'll have to give up resettling the ethnic Chin Burmese in the U.S., even though some have family members here.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News Washington.

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