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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.
"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":
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."
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.
"They got back to me and said: 'It is what it is,'" Ragland recalls.
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."
Changes to the statute are unlikely and policy-level changes are slow going due to the politically fraught nature of the word "terrorism."
"When you say, 'terrorism,' it's like cancer," Ragland says. "It's the scarlet letter T, it's the number one thing that all politicians and administration people and everybody is afraid of: being accused of letting in a terrorist."
Regassa Oljirra first petitioned the United States for a green card 11 years ago. Oljirra, a 43-year-old asylee from Ethiopia who works in the state of Minnesota's Department of Human Services, was granted asylum in November 1999.
Since applying for his green card in April 2001, Oljirra has sent countless messages requesting updates to the federal government.
"I've been getting a two-sentence generic message for the last 11 years," Oljirra says.
In addition to working for the state of Minnesota, Oljirra is taking public policy courses at the University of St. Thomas. His wife is a U.S. citizen who cannot file an immigration petition on his behalf due to the terrorism bar. Oljirra's application was flagged due to his youthful support of the Oromo Liberation Front. It's a problem his friends and family find all too familiar.
"This is not a secret," Oljirra says. "This is happening to thousands of Oromos in town, refugees and asylees; there are so many people affected by this."
The immigrants themselves are baffled by the situation. Oljirra sees no rational reason for his own green card application to take 11 years to process and calls the whole situation a "paradox."
"Government is saying they don't issue you a green card because of this terrorism-related issue, but they still keep you in the country, they let you work," Oljirra says. "I can go anywhere, at any time, within the borders of the United States. If they think that I pose a danger, they should not have done that."
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