Administration Acts to Prevent Some Syrian and Other Refugees from Being Denied Protection in United States

Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First welcomes today’s announcement that the United States will take important steps to address impediments facing refugees waiting to be resettled to the United States, including Syrian refugees. A joint notice scheduled for publication in tomorrow’s Federal Register announced two new exemptions from the overly-broad inadmissibility provisions of U.S. immigration law that threatened to exclude from refugee protection many vulnerable Syrians who have engaged in no wrongdoing and pose no threat to the United States.

Certain provisions of U.S. immigration law are interpreted to define any rebellion against any sitting government as terrorist activity. These have been invoked to unfairly deny protection to innocent people, including a refugee who had been robbed of $4 and his lunch by armed rebels, and a florist who sold bouquets to members of a group designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. As Secretaries John Kerry and Jeh Johnson will recognize formally in tomorrow’s exemption announcements, these overly-broad provisions of law are a bar to refugees “who do not pose a national security or public safety risk.”

“We applaud the administration for taking steps now to address some of the hurdles that Syrian refugees are likely to face in being resettled to safety in the United States,” said Human Rights First’s Anwen Hughes. “At the same time, several of the scenarios covered by these exemptions should not have been treated as ‘terrorist activity’ in the first place. We welcome these announcements for the practical relief they will provide to many refugees, but regret that the administration has not taken this opportunity to adopt a more sensible interpretation of the underlying statute, which is being applied to bar thousands of refugees from protection in the United States.”

Human Rights First raised concerns about the likely impact of these inadmissibility grounds on Syrian refugee resettlement in its recent report Refuge at Risk as well as a statement submitted to Congress. There are currently more than 2.4 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, and the United States needs to step up resettlement efforts to help Syria’s neighbors, help protect the most vulnerable of Syria’s refugees, and set an example for other resettlement countries. Human Rights First has called for the United States to resettle at least 15,000 Syrian refugees each year, subject to evolving need.

“Until Congress focuses immigration law’s definitions of ‘terrorist activity’ and ‘terrorist organization,’ the administration must act to ensure that legitimate refugees are not excluded from the United States in violation of U.S. international obligations,” said Hughes. “The administration, as it launches a meaningful resettlement effort for Syrian refugees, must ensure that it is not indiscriminately excluding from protection all those who assisted any armed opposition group, including those the U.S. government itself supports, against a regime it has repeatedly condemned.”

The first exemption announced today will allow for protection to be granted on a case-by-case basis to an otherwise eligible refugee who provided limited support to a so-called “Tier III” organization. Tier III organizations are groups that are neither designated nor listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government but are characterized as such for immigration purposes based solely on the fact that they are non-state groups that use or have a sub-group that uses armed force. The exemption will also apply to those who provided limited support to a member of a Tier III group, or to anyone who is not a member of any armed group but who has personally engaged in the use of armed force or plans to. These exemptions will only apply if that support involved:

  • Certain routine commercial transactions or certain routine social transactions (i.e. in the satisfaction of well-established or verifiable family, social, or cultural obligations);
  • Certain humanitarian assistance; or,
  • Substantial pressure that does not rise to the level of duress.

The second exemption will be applicable to cases of people who gave what the announcement characterizes as “insignificant material support” to the same range of groups and actors described above. Applicants under consideration for either of these exemptions must satisfy several requirements. For example, they must have passed all relevant background and security checks, must not have provided material support to a designated terrorist organization, and must pose no danger to the safety and security of the United States. Human Rights First anticipates that these exemptions will benefit significant numbers of refugees, including persons previously granted asylum or refugee status whose later applications for permanent residency or family reunification have been held up for years because of these problems.

While the announced exemptions represent a very welcome step forward, action is still needed to bring relief to a number of other categories of refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, including:

  • Anyone who provided assistance to any group deemed to be a Tier III organization that is not deemed to be insignificant or to fall into the limited categories described above;
  • Anyone who solicited funds or members for a Tier III group;
  • Anyone who provided assistance in any amount to any Tier III group with the intention of assisting in the overthrow of any government, regardless of the nature or tactics of that government or whether the person’s actions and the actions he/she furthered were consistent with international humanitarian law;
  • Anyone who engaged in a routine commercial or social transaction with a member of a group that is listed or designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, a scenario that has arisen not only in Syria but previously in other countries from Colombia to Sri Lanka, where refugees had incidental contacts with listed or designated groups that seized control of the areas where these refugees lived;
  • Former combatants, including former child soldiers for whom no solution presently exists under U.S. immigration law;
  • Anyone whose spouse or parent is deemed to be inadmissible under these provisions.

Published on February 3, 2014


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