The Terrorists Next Door

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

The Terrorists Next Door
Immigrants classified as "Tier III" terrorists face never-ending red tape

Tadese Geleta hoped to escape persecution when he followed his wife from Ethiopia to the United States. Geleta, a lean 54-year-old with thin, graying hair, fled to America in 2005 with his young children, Rajeera and Sena.

"There is harassment, political detention, killings, all evil things," Geleta says of his home country.

As a young man, Geleta joined the Oromo Liberation Front, an ethnic separatist group founded in the early 1970s to oppose the Ethiopian government's rule over his people.

Sources: Executive Office for Immigration Review) and Ashley Huebner, National Immigrant Justice Center.
Anwen Hughes and Melanie Nezer are leading critics of the current terrorism bar
courtesy of Thomas Haederle
Anwen Hughes and Melanie Nezer are leading critics of the current terrorism bar

"Most of us if not all of us are sympathizers," Geleta explains.

The group's continued resistance against the Ethiopian government has provoked a backlash. The country's rulers have outlawed the OLF as a terrorist organization and attacked its members.

Geleta remembers being jailed and tortured by the government's police force, which was trained by the Stasi, communist East Germany's secret police.

"They fill water in a bottle, one liter, then they hang on the scrotum," Geleta recalls, grimacing.

His fear of returning to his native land due to persecution is the reason America granted asylum to Geleta, his wife, Megertu, and their two children. Minnesota is home to the largest Oromo community in the United States. Geleta and his wife settled in Oakdale, where he works as a medical case manager.

Asylum put the family on the path to receiving permanent legal residency, or green cards. The family filed their green card petitions in 2007, but the applications were put on hold for five years due to their involvement with a "terrorist" group.

Under Section 212(a)(3)(b) of federal immigration law, immigrants involved with terrorist groups are not admissable to the United States. But in the wake of 9/11, lawmakers broadly expanded the definition of "terrorist." That transformed thousands of refugees and asylees already granted protection by the federal government into newly minted "terrorists," delaying thousands of immigrants' cases for months and years.

"At the point people are approved for asylum or refugee status, somebody sat down with them and talked about all of this activity," explains Emily Good, director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program at the Advocates for Human Rights. "But the problem has come up that as we're reviewing their applications for permanent residence status, 'Oh, now we need to double check and make sure you don't fall under any of these bars.'"

It's confusing for the immigrants, Good says. Often, the very information that leads the government to grant them asylum is also what gets them classified as terrorists.

"'This wasn't a problem before,' is how they feel. 'Why is it a problem now?'"


The USA PATRIOT Act created new definitions of "terrorist organizations" and providing "material support" to terrorism. It created two categories of terrorist organizations, labeled Tier I and Tier II. Maintained by the State Department, the list includes organizations like Al-Qaeda, Peru's Shining Path, Colombia's FARC, Al-Shabaab, and many others.

But the PATRIOT Act also created a third tier: "undesignated" terrorist organizations. Under the law, any group of "two or more individuals, whether organized or not, which engages in" terrorist activity can be labeled a Tier III terrorist group, with "terrorist activity" defined as any use of violence for purposes other than personal enrichment.

A 2005 bill, the REAL ID Act, broadened the PATRIOT Act's definition of a "Tier III terrorist organization" to include any organization with a subgroup that engages in "terrorist activity."

Unlike Tier I and Tier II organizations, there is no publicly available list of Tier III terrorist groups. Groups are labeled Tier III on a case-by-case basis, which is a problem for advocates.

"It's so broadly written and written with such ambiguous language that it essentially allows the government at any time to assert that a group is a terrorist organization based on some very limited connection to violent activity," says Ashley Huebner, a supervising attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center. "And that's where the majority of people are getting caught up."

A national nonprofit called Human Rights First set out to explore the issue in 2009, detailing problems with the law in a report titled "Denial and Delay." As it turned out, Tier III has snagged some awkward "terrorists":

One Afghan's application for permanent residency was delayed in 2008 because he was "a member of one of the political factions fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan."

A Burundi refugee who was robbed of $4 "and his lunch" spent 20 months in immigration detention for providing "material support" to terrorism.

Movement for Democratic Change, the democratic opposition party in Zimbabwe, was derided as a Tier III terrorist group by Homeland Security at the same time Barack Obama was meeting the group's leader and praising him for his "extraordinary courage."

According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 20,000 immigration cases have been affected by the terrorism bar. Immigrants whose cases are flagged have to be reviewed by Homeland Security officials, who have been granted authority by Congress to grant "exemptions."

There are currently 4,623 cases on hold.

Former Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Eric Schwartz says the terrorism bar has been "a source of considerable concern" within the government.

"On the one hand, we can't let these security screening procedures shut down our programs," Schwartz, who is now dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. "On the other hand, if we don't have responsible screening programs, we will lose public support for our refugee program. That's the dilemma."


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