2-6-2012By Annie Sovcik
Advocacy Counsel, Refugee Protection Program
Broad definitions and absurd legal interpretations continue to harm refugees and their families
In the late 1970’s when Ethiopia was under the control of the notoriously brutal Dergue regime and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was engaged in a struggle for its independence from Ethiopia, Letekidan, an Eritrean woman, supported the ELF. Her support consisted of providing the ELF with items such as sugar, shoes, and cigarettes, as well as passing along secret documents. Almost thirty years later, during which time she was jailed and subjected to repeated torture by the Dergue regime and Eritrea gained independence, Letekidan fled and sought asylum in the United States.
Imagine Letekidan’s shock when an immigration judge informed her that she was barred from all forms of protection because she had engaged in “terrorist activity” by providing support to the ELF in the late 1970’s.
The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act defines “terrorist activity” as any unlawful use of armed force against people or property carried out for any motive other than “mere personal monetary gain.” And any group of two or more people, “whether organized or not,” who use armed force is considered a “terrorist organization.” U.S. immigration authorities have been using these provisions to bar from the U.S. (and from the protections of refugee status) anyone who has ever taken up arms against an established government or helped those who did, regardless of the nature of the government or the circumstances. These overbroad immigration provisions have defined as “terrorist organizations” groups the U.S. has never treated as terrorist organizations in any other context, and are being applied retroactively to cover groups that dissolved years ago, or that are now running governments that enjoy good relations with the United States.
There are more than 4,000 people living peacefully in the United States whose applications for asylum, permanent residence, or family reunification are “on hold” because the U.S. government has mislabeled them “terrorists.” This continues even as the Department of Homeland Security has determined they aren’t threats to our communities or to national security, which is among the criteria for putting an application “on hold.”
At a recent Human Rights First event, Barrett Duke, the Vice President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, acknowledged the importance of a rigorous screening process that prevents actual terrorists and their supporters from entering the United States but explained how these bars have been “unevenly applied and [are] insensitive to the realities of life for many of these people.” Mr. Duke described the challenges on spiritual, social, practical and common sense grounds.
Since 2005, the government has recognized that these provisions are harming people like Letekidan—people Congress never intended them to target. In 2007, through bipartisan legislation spearheaded by Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Congress gave U.S. agencies broad discretion to mitigate this situation. To date, however, the administration has failed to implement this legislation. As a result, thousands of law-abiding people languish in limbo and many continue to be indefinitely separated from their families.
- Click here to read an article in the Baptist Press, “Panel: Refugees Wrongly Labeled Terrorists.”
- Click here to read the blog post, “The Trouble with TRIG,” by Barrett Duke, Vice President for Public Policy and Research, Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
- To learn more visit Human Rights First’s website.