Senator seeks common sense protection for refugees and asylum-seekers

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has renewed his call for the United States to take the steps necessary to implement the authority granted by Congress to protect legitimate refugees and asylum–seekers who are currently denied entry due to overbroad definitions of material support for terrorism.

Mr. Leahy’s comments, officially recorded in the Congressional Record, follow.‪

Mr. LEAHY: Mr. President, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress made dramatic changes to our immigration laws that were intended to strengthen barriers to entry to the United States for those believed to be engaged in terrorist activity. This was a laudable goal, but as with so much of the Federal Government’s response to the September 11 attacks, fear overtook reason and sound judgment. Rather than limit the scope of changes to the law, Congress passed vastly overbroad revisions to the definition of terrorist activity, resulting in harm to asylum seekers and refugees. As a result, many who deserve and are otherwise eligible for protection under our laws have suffered needlessly.‪

The post-September 11 changes to the law expanded bars to entry for those accused of providing “material support” to terrorist organizations, or who are believed to have engaged in “terrorist activity.” The new definition of terrorist organization was so broadly written that an individual who was forced at gunpoint to provide medical or other assistance, no matter how slight, to any group of two or more people acting against the law of their country, are considered to have materially supported a terrorist organization. As a result, those who bravely fought repressive governments in their home countries, and those who joined the United States in opposing despots, can now be called terrorists and barred from protection in our Nation.‪

I have worked for years to restore common sense to the bars in our immigration laws that apply to material support for terrorism. Unfortunately, as a result of the previous administration’s inaction, and slow progress within the new administration, these laws remain a stain on the reputation of the United States as a leader in the cause of human rights. The time to end the terrible consequences of these laws is long overdue.‪ I called upon the previous administration to exert leadership in solving the longstanding problems associated with these restrictions to admission to the United States. I worked with Senator Kyl to provide the Bush-Cheney administration with the authority to implement waivers so that those deserving of our protection were not wrongly denied sanctuary in the United States. Little was done with the authority we provided.‪

We can and must do better. Today I renew these calls for leadership in the new administration. I call on President Obama to take the steps necessary to implement the authority granted by Congress to protect bona fide refugees and asylees.‪

I recognize that the waiver authority Congress provided to the executive branch resulted in some positive changes in recent months. The executive branch is granting waivers to those whose “support” under the overly broad definition of terrorist organization was provided only under duress. Some others, whose support was provided to groups exempt from the definition of terrorist organization, are also being granted protection. But that is not enough. The third tier of the law’s definition of terrorist organization continues to ensnare those deserving of our protection who pose no legitimate threat to the United States. Currently, over 7,000 individuals who were granted refugee status or asylum, and who have since petitioned the Government for lawful permanent residence, are on hold and in legal limbo because the agency has not implemented the authority granted under law. These are individuals whom our Government has already screened and deemed eligible for protection under the same set of facts now being held against them to erroneously claim that they are threats to the United States.‪[Page S8855]‪ And in some cases, these are people that bravely stood by the United States in Iraq and elsewhere. Saman Kareem Ahmad served as a translator for the U.S. Marines in Iraq. He came to the United States on a special visa, supported by the Marine captain with whom he served, and with commendations from GEN David Petraeus. But because he had served with the Kurdish democratic party in Iraq in opposing Saddam Hussein, Mr. Ahmad was initially denied a green card because he was deemed to have been part of a terrorist organization under the law’s definition. It took press reporting and congressional oversight to resolve this injustice. Such a result is at odds with our values.‪

As the result of legislation Senator Kyl and I sponsored, and which became law, the agency was directed to establish a process for exempting certain groups from the material support bars. In practice, an individual who is granted refugee status or asylum is eligible to later petition to adjust their status to lawful permanent residence. Yet, rather than apply the exemption authority granted under law, the agency appears to assume the terrorism bars apply in many of these cases, and then holds the cases until it determines whether the individual applicants are eligible for a waiver. This is not what Congress intended. A significant percentage of the more than 7,000 pending cases are petitions from refugees or asylees who were previously admitted to the United States. They are being penalized for actions that took place prior to their admission to the United States, often for activity that was not barred at the time, and which they disclosed prior to lawful admission to our nation. These individuals should be granted a presumption of admissibility, assuming no other factors of inadmissibility apply to their cases.‪ Equally troubling is the effect of agency inaction on individuals in removal proceedings. Asylum seekers in removal proceedings are not considered for a waiver of the terrorism-related bars unless and until a final order of removal is issued. This inefficient system forces asylum seekers to engage in a lengthy appeals process if they believe they have a valid claim for relief. Reviewing such cases for waivers at the early stages of removal proceedings will lead to more efficient operations within the agency and the immigration courts. It will also save genuine asylum seekers from unnecessary anguish and enable them to more quickly integrate into American society.‪

I intend to work in earnest with the Obama administration to solve this problem once and for all. If the executive branch is unwilling or unable to make the needed administrative changes to policy, then I will introduce legislation once again. Should legislation be necessary, I expect the administration and the agencies to work with me in a constructive manner to restore common sense and fairness to our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.‪‪‪‪

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