Significant Relief at Last for Refugees and Asylees Mislabeled as “Terrorists”
New York City – Human Rights First welcomes today’s announcement of Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Janet Napolitano’s decision to exercise her discretionary authority, vested in her by Congress, to bring long-awaited relief to many refugees and asylees whose applications for permanent residence or reunification with their spouses and children have been “on hold” for years. “We welcome this important step forward and look forward to an effective implementation of this announcement,” said Anwen Hughes of Human Rights First. “These roughly 4000 refugees and their families have suffered a range of harms while waiting for their cases to be addressed – from loss of jobs and job opportunities to the prolonged separation of their families.” Today’s exemption announcement, published in the Federal Register – and discussed in greater detail in Human Rights First’s background fact sheet – allows persons previously granted asylum or refugee status in the United States, and their spouses and children, to have their cases adjudicated on a case-by-case basis if their cases are “on hold” due to non-violent associations with groups described as “terrorist organizations” under the Immigration & Nationality Act (INA) solely by virtue of the fact that they engaged in the use of armed force as non-state actors. The list of groups characterized in this way by DHS includes: the National Democratic Alliance, the umbrella organization of political parties and movements opposed to the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir in the Sudan; Iraqis who rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991; and both of the largest political parties in Bangladesh. Today’s announcement does not cover persons who had connections to certain types of groups, including groups that have at any time engaged in particularly serious human rights violations. Over four years ago Congress—in a bi-partisan effort led by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ)—amended the law to expand the Administration’s authority to exempt persons with no connection to terrorism from being barred from protection or status in this country based on the INA’s overbroad definitions. This legislation enlarged discretionary authority vested by Congress in the Secretary of Homeland Security since 2005. DHS’s implementation of that authority had however been moving at a glacial pace. In June 2012, a diverse coalition of groups sent a letter calling on President Obama to “allow people to prove—and in the case of refugees and asylees already living in the United States, prove again—that they pose no threat to the security of the United States, so that refugees can find safety, families are no longer needlessly divided, and long-term, law-abiding residents of the United States can finally have their cases resolved.” These groups included Human Rights First, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Hudson Institute, the Jubilee Campaign USA, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and World Relief. Today’s announcement represents a major step towards that goal. “While this announcement marks a significant step forward, it is critically important that the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Justice, which share statutory responsibility for crafting exemptions and have all been involved in this lengthy process, continue efforts to allow the resolution of those cases not affected by this exemption announcement,” noted Hughes. “The Department of Homeland Security should also pursue with energy and speed an ongoing review of its legal interpretation of the relevant statutory definitions, notably the meaning of ‘material support.’” DHS is even applying the bar to persons who had what DHS terms “routine commercial transactions” with members of armed groups – for example a restaurant owner who serves food at the same price to all her customers without political distinction.