Panel: Refugees wrongly labeled 'terrorists'
WASHINGTON (BP) -- The Obama administration's continued inaction has stranded thousands of peaceful refugees wrongly labeled as terrorists in a bureaucratic limbo, says a coalition of religious and human rights organizations.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was one of the groups represented on a recent Washington panel that again urged the White House to implement reforms called for in a 2007 law. That measure was designed to correct unintentional results for refugees and asylum seekers produced by anti-terrorism laws passed after the 2001 suicide attacks on the United States.
The failure by the executive branch to apply those procedures has meant more than 4,000 people who already have qualified as refugees -- or are proceeding through the asylum process -- are categorized as terrorists even though they are living peacefully in this country. It also has placed an unknown number of refugees in dangerous conditions overseas and/or separated them from their families, according to the coalition, which also made the appeal in 2010.
The federal law's overly broad definitions of "terrorist organizations" and "material support" to such groups -- and the wide-ranging interpretations by the administration -- have ensnared many a non-terrorist seeking to live in this country. Refugees have been categorized as terrorists even if they supported pro-democracy efforts or groups that fought under the direction of the United States.
While coalition members believe changes are needed in federal law, they say the executive branch could solve many of the problems by applying the congressional reforms in place.
Barrett Duke, the ERLC's vice president for public policy and research, told the audience at the Jan. 23 panel discussion the coalition is not urging the government "to drop the bar altogether" on examining people entering the United States.
"We are grateful that our country has done as well as it has on admitting people to this country on refugee or asylum basis," he said. "And yet at the same time, it's clear that when it comes to this particular subject that we can do better."
Duke said the "terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds" (TRIG), as they are known, are "unevenly applied and insensitive to the realities of life for many of these people."
TRIG is insensitive, he said, in the following ways:
-- On spiritual grounds.
"It certainly has the potential to -- and probably is currently -- punishing people who take their discipleship seriously, their commitment to the Lord seriously," Duke said. He cited verses in Matthew in which Jesus commanded His disciples to meet needs and to do more than what is required. The person who acts in obedience to Christ's commands by providing such "material support" as food or water to someone who turns out to be a member of a terrorist group or to someone who is related to a terrorist -- and tells the truth about it -- could be labeled a terrorist by the U.S. government.
"So the way this is currently being done, it certainly punishes people who are simply trying to faithfully live out their religious beliefs," he said.
-- On social grounds.
The system "is actually weakening families ... actually directly affecting how children grow up and the relationships between husbands and wives," Duke said. "That is certainly not good for anyone. Societies are stronger when families are strong."
-- On common-sense grounds.
The rules don't appear to "take into consideration intent, level of support or the type of regime opposed," he said. "Somehow some common sense needs to be injected into the system. ... [T]his current bar is even being used to deny asylum to victims of terrorist extortion in Nepal and even against women who are raped and enslaved by militias in Liberia."
-- On practical grounds.
The refugee or asylum process "exposes someone to such a degree of scrutiny that this is the least likely way that somebody is going to use to try to enter this country to do harm," Duke said.
One of the panelists, Julie Hysenaj, explained the devastating consequences of the system for her family. She has been separated from her husband, Arben, for more than four years after an immigration judge rejected his application for asylum. When he left the country on the advice of a lawyer, he was denied a visa to return on the basis of his service for two months in the Kosovo Liberation Army, which was supported by the U.S.
"Arben is not a terrorist," his tearful wife said. "He is not a threat to anybody. He is hard-working, honest, caring, dependable. I miss him so much."
Melanie Nezer, senior director of U.S. policy and advocacy for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said at the briefing the policies in question are not helping the war against terrorism.
"In terms of this being a tool to protect the country from terrorists, I don't think anyone could say it's an effective tool," she said. "It probably diverts a lot of resources that could be otherwise used in a better way."
The coalition also made similar appeals to the Obama administration in late 2010. Coalition members sent a letter to Obama in October calling on him to order the full implementation of the 2007 law's reforms within a 45-day compliance period. Among the 27 signers was ERLC President Richard Land. A briefing in which participants repeated their calls for change was held in December of the same year.
Also speaking at the Jan. 23 panel discussion were Anwen Hughes, senior counsel at Human Rights First, and Steven Schulman, who leads pro bono work globally for the Akin Gump law firm.
Duke has written a commentary that explains at more length his concerns on the issue that may be found at the ERLC's website at http://erlc.com/article/the-trouble-with-trig/.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).