TRIG Doesn't Honor the Basic Principle that Families should Remain Together

Posted by Kiera Bloore on Tue, Jul 10, 2012 at 15:48 pm

One of the great things about my legal internship with HIAS is that it has put me back in touch with my Jewish roots.  Over the past several weeks, I have learned about the many challenges immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers face in this country, including prolonged separation from family.  Then, I realized that I did not know anything about how my own family immigrated to the United States.  I decided to call my Zadie (grandfather in Yiddish) and ask him to tell me the story of our family’s beginnings in this country.

Two things stood out to me during our conversation.  First, the process for entering the United States was fairly simple for my family.  Second, family support was crucial to their survival and happiness as they made a new life for themselves.

Zadie’s family emigrated from Russia to the U.S. to escape the pogroms in Russia. According to Zadie, his family simply had to pass a medical test and have someone in the United States sponsor them before they could enter the country through Ellis Island.  His family was lucky enough to be able to travel to the U.S. together and he told me, “we always kept together.”  Just on his mother’s side of the family, Zadie had eight or ten cousins that lived within a half mile of his house in Chicago.  Growing up, his family did not have very much money but they were always together. Zadie said, “There was nothing I ever missed. I thought I was living great.”

Unfortunately, my family’s story is a far cry from the experience of many families today that are being torn apart due to the U.S. Government’s Terrorism Related Inadmissibility Grounds (TRIG).  The U.S. government has been applying overly-broad and far-reaching counter-terrorism provisions to thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers, and applicants for green cards, making them inadmissible to the U.S.

While the law provides broad authority to grant exemptions from most of the terrorism related inadmissibility grounds, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented this authority in a very slow and piecemeal fashion.  As a result, hundreds of refugees and asylum-seekers have had their cases put “on hold” and have not been able to reunite with family members.

In June 2012, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano finally signed an exemption for certain aliens who have voluntary, non-violent associations or activities with Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).  This means that 59 people “on hold,” will now receive their green cards and/or be reunited with family.

One example of a family who will finally be reunited due to this exemption is a husband and wife who have been separated from each other for four and a half years. The woman is a U.S. citizen and her husband is from Kosovo.  When she married him, her husband was applying for asylum in the United States.  Their attorney recommended that her husband leave the U.S. and apply for an immigrant visa, so he did.  However, at his final interview, he was told his visa had been denied because for two months in the summer of 1998, he had been in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

The State Department was treating him as a terrorist even though the United States supported Kosovo's independence.  Additionally, the KLA is not listed as a terrorist group; it falls under the broad definition of an "undesignated" terrorist organization, which captures hundreds of organizations that the U.S. doesn't consider "terrorist" in any other context.  Therefore, the government denied his visa even though he had joined the KLA as a matter of survival, was only part of the KLA for two months, and never was a threat to anyone in the United States.

As a result, his wife was forced to work three jobs to make mortgage payments and was not able to save enough money to visit her husband for two and a half years.  Now, with Secretary Napolitano’s recent exemption, this husband and wife will finally have the opportunity to reunite.

But the KLA exemption is just a small step in the right direction.  We must continue to put pressure on the government to amend the overly broad definition of “terrorism” to make it consistent with the common understanding of the term “terrorism.”  There are too many people being forced to live without the support of their loved ones.

As Jews, it is important to remember family is the cornerstone of Jewish history, education, and values.  According to Jewish tradition, “kin and family resemble a heap of stones; if one stone is taken out of it, the whole collapses.”

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