Friends of U.S., Terrorists in Eyes of Law
By DAN FROSCH
Nassir Al-Rifahe never thought his love for America would be questioned.
Times Topic: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
As a member of the Iraqi National Congress, he worked for years to topple Saddam Hussein before being granted political asylum in the United States in 1997.
But for the last decade, while Mr. Rifahe, 57, lived quietly with his family in Texas and Minnesota, the Department of Homeland Security has refused to grant his application for a green card, instead letting the case languish unresolved.
Under a sweeping section of federal immigration law, the government considers Mr. Rifahe to have engaged in terrorist-related activity, making him ineligible to live here permanently. That the group Mr. Rifahe worked for was once supported by the United States and tried to overthrow Saddam Hussein matters little.
“It is not fair; I want to stay here,” Mr. Rifahe said. “How come they helped me before, but now they say I am a terrorist? I can’t believe this. Never would I do this.”
An estimated 4,000 cases similar to Mr. Rifahe’s are on hold around the country. Some have dragged on for years as immigration officials wrestle with how to handle people previously granted political asylum or refugee status in this country, but whose past affiliations technically bar them from permanent residency.
Many of the cases involve people who belonged to groups in their homelands once backed by Washington, immigration lawyers and human rights advocates say. Often, it is their connection to those groups that allowed the immigrants to come here in the first place.
The situation has created a conundrum for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which acknowledges that the individuals pose no threat to national security. But the agency says existing law would force their green card applications to be denied and has instead placed the cases on hold until special exemptions can be created.
“The law is being applied as a blunt instrument to label people terrorists who didn’t engage in any terrorist activity and who were actually victims,” said Anwen Hughes, senior counsel for Human Rights First, a New York-based group that is pushing to change the portion of immigration law in question. “The information about their pasts is information they volunteered, and in some cases, it is the information upon which the U.S. granted them refugee protection initially.”
At issue is a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which was bolstered after the Sept. 11 attacks by the Patriot Act and other legislation to prevent terrorists from entering the United States.
As currently worded, the act defines a terrorist group as any organization with two or more people that has engaged in a range of violent activities against persons or property. This would include groups that take up arms against a government.
Simply belonging to such an organization, which does not have to be officially designated by the United States as terrorist, or providing “material support” are grounds for being barred from this country.
The law makes no distinction for groups or governments that Washington views favorably.
As a result, an assortment of refugees and asylum-seekers are deemed terrorists or to have aided terrorist groups. For example, immigrants once affiliated with organizations that battled the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or took up arms against the Sudanese government, both efforts the United States was sympathetic to at one point, have been unable to receive green cards, Ms. Hughes said.
Many of the cases do not even involve violence by the green card applicants, but rather lending assistance to political or military factions, she added.
Without a green card, immigrants cannot become citizens, must apply to travel outside the country in some cases and can have a more difficult time with employment.
“My kids keep asking me why I am not a citizen like they are,” said Shefqet Krasniqi, a project manager for a New York City construction company. “I am living ashamed. It doesn’t make sense to think I would harm a country I owe so many things to.” He left a war-ravaged Kosovo in 1999 and was granted political asylum in the United States.
Mr. Krasniqi said he was informed that his green card application has been on hold because of his association with the Kosovo Liberation Army, which he joined after Serbian forces attacked villages near his home.
The Homeland Security, Justice and State Departments are working to create special waivers so the green card applications can be transferred to immigration courts, where most requests for permanent residency are likely to be granted.
According to the citizenship and immigration agency, 3,500 cases were cleared for consideration last year, and the agency has vowed that the rest will be cleared by the end of this year.
“Based on available information and following a case-by-case review, U.S.C.I.S. has determined that all remaining cases currently being held on terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds do not, in fact, pose any threat to the United States,” Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a statement.
Francisco Saborit, who served time in a Cuban prison for breaking a sugar cane cutting machine in protest of Fidel Castro’s communist government, has been waiting more than five years to receive his green card.
Mr. Saborit left Cuba in 2005 after being persecuted for his involvement with pro-democracy groups, he said. He was granted refugee status and has been living in Miami.
But a 2008 letter from the government initially denied Mr. Saborit’s request, citing subversion against the Castro regime. His case has been reopened, but there has been no action.
Mr. Saborit said he is too ashamed to tell his friends why he still does not have a green card after all these years.
“I am paralyzed in this country,” Mr. Saborit said through an interpreter. “I feel like I’m a prisoner. I am really tired of everything.”
Reprinted from The New York Times, National, of Monday, September 19, 2011.