The Terrorists Next Door

National security laws have transformed America's most vulnerable immigrants into terrorists

Saman Kareem Ahmad served with the United States Marine Corps in Iraq as a translator during the darkest days of the insurgency. For four years, he "put his life on the line with, and for, Coalition Forces on a daily basis," according to Marine Capt. Trent A. Gibson, who served with Ahmad.

"If anybody seems like they should be a candidate for rolling out the red carpet in the United States, it's him," says Thomas Ragland, the attorney who represented Ahmad.

But Ahmad, a Kurd from Iraq who immigrated to the United States in 2006 and applied for a green card, was refused due to his involvement with the Kurdish Democratic Party. Despite being an American ally against Saddam Hussein, the KDP was listed as a Tier III terrorist organization.

Julie Hysenaj's husband, Arben, can't come home because of America's inconsistent terrorism bar
courtesy of Julie Hysenaj
Julie Hysenaj's husband, Arben, can't come home because of America's inconsistent terrorism bar

Ragland spent 10 years working at the Department of Justice as an attorney with the Executive Office for Immigration Review. He called a former colleague and explained Ahmad's situation.

"They got back to me and said: 'It is what it is,'" Ragland recalls.

That answer wasn't good enough, so Ragland called the Washington Post, which ran a front-page story on Easter Sunday, 2008: "Stalwart Service for U.S. in Iraq Is Not Enough to Gain Green Card."

Two weeks later, everything changed. Ahmad received his green card.

"The reason I tell you that story is his case is the absolute exception to the rule," Ragland explains. "Everybody else, no matter how compelling their stories may be, who have not ended up on the front page of the Post, have had their cases delayed."

Critics of the terrorism bar contend that it transforms vulnerable asylees and refugees into terrorists and puts genuine heroes' applications on hold. Under the current statute, even the partisans who supported those who fought Nazis in Germany would have been flagged.

"They used weapons, they used dangerous devices, for reasons other than monetary gain," argues Melanie Nezer, a senior director at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. "They were fighting back. That's what people do."

For their part, government officials say they aren't unsympathetic to the situation faced by refugees tripped up by the terrorism bar.

"We understand the frustration on the part of the applicants," says Tim Counts, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "We understand the confusion on the part of some applicants. But our responsibility is to implement the laws passed by Congress."

The government believes that "most of these cases will eventually be granted an exemption," Counts says. That's borne out by the numbers: There have been 14,393 exemptions granted, with only 98 denied.

Yet 4,623 applicants remain in limbo as of February 29.

"We think the best course for the remaining cases is to keep them on hold," Counts says. "If we were required to adjudicate them now, we'd most likely have to deny them because the exemptions have not been created."

But that delay comes with a cost, both financial and humanitarian, says Nezer.

"Nobody thinks they're a threat but we're spending literally hundreds of hours of government staff time to try to figure out how we can come up with a procedure to call them 'not terrorists' and give them their green card."

There are a few exemptions from the terrorism bar currently in place: Applicants can petition for an exemption if they claim that their involvement with a Tier III group was under duress, or if they were simply providing medical care.

Several groups with which the United States sympathizes have received specific exemptions, including the All India Sikh Students Federation-Bittu Faction, the Iraqi National Congress, the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Pakistan, and 11 other groups hailing from Burma, Tibet, Cuba, and Vietnam.

"There is ongoing steady progress in reviewing these cases and granting exemptions," Counts says. "[Reporters] tend to highlight a particular case when they're interviewing someone and their attorney, but what gets edited out is the good progress."

It's worth pointing out that the feds have indeed made good progress whittling down the number of applications on hold: In 2009, there were more than 7,500 cases facing terrorism-related delays.

But critics like Anwen Hughes argue that Homeland Security's bureaucratic processes ensure that justice is seldom swift.

For Homeland Security to create a new exemption requires an inter-agency policy committee with representatives from the departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security to agree. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano must then sign off on the group's recommendation.

One exemption for the Kosovo Liberation Army, which the United States supported in the 1990s, has been languishing on Secretary Napolitano's desk for half a year.

An American citizen, Julie Hysenaj, recently wrote an open letter to the federal government expressing outrage at the handling of her husband Arben's immigration case. The letter, titled "Dear DHS: My Husband Is Not a Terrorist — Can He Come Home?" highlights the government's inconsistent categorization of terrorist groups.

"I contacted the Kosovo embassy in Washington, and a rep told me that this was not possible, that the KLA was not listed as a terrorist organization. It's not," Hysenaj wrote. "But that doesn't matter because the definition of an 'undesignated' terrorist organization in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is so broad it captures hundreds of organizations, including the KLA, that the U.S. doesn't consider 'terrorist' in any other context."

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