The Irony Of U.S. Immigration Laws

Posted on Wed, Apr 16, 2008 at 9:23 am

by Gideon Aronoff
Special To The Jewish Week

On Tuesday, in Warsaw, the nations of the world joined Poland in commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a signal event in the modern history of the Jewish people. Unwilling to buckle to their oppressors, the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto are an enduring symbol of the force of life over the power of pure evil.

At that event, Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), represented President Bush. As the leader of the U.S. delegation, he heard about the courage of those who resisted the Nazi regime and those who supplied ghetto fighters with food and weapons and established contacts with the Partisans in the nearby forests.

Astonishingly, those same resisters and enablers would face exclusion if they applied for refuge in the U.S under today’s restrictions. In an absurd twist, America’s anti-terrorism laws are now being used to deny protection to refugees fleeing some of the most ruthless regimes and violent conflicts on earth.

Ironically, Chertoff’s trip to Warsaw occurred just after his agency sent letters to hundreds of refugees in the U.S. stating that they would be denied permanent residence. Already offered temporary protection in the United States, these are individuals who resisted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, assisted the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, rose up against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, defended themselves against brutally repressive rulers in Burma and Sudan, or have found themselves in equally impossible situations in places of conflict around the world.

All of these refugees had fully disclosed their actions to U.S. authorities before being welcomed to the United States. All have been living peacefully among us for years. Some have children who are U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq. Yet in January and February, these refugees opened their mailboxes to find letters stating that their conduct now rendered them “inadmissible” to the United States.

Without question, measures taken to prevent terrorists from being supported, and to keep their supporters out, are critically important. However, the reason these refugees were denied is because they engaged in resistance against modern-day oppressors, and were therefore classified as “terrorists” under today’s sweeping anti-terrorism laws.

Under the government’s broad definition of the term “terrorism,” support for a group that is associated with armed resistance against a repressive regime constitutes material support to terrorism. This is true even if the group’s actions are not terrorist acts by any reasonable definition of the term, the government it opposes is a major human rights violator, and the American government openly supports the goals of the opposition group.

Even those refugees, whose actions in support of terrorist groups were forced or coerced, have been barred from this country under DHS’s interpretation of the law. According to DHS, duress is not an excuse: any contribution to a terrorist group — even if it was made at gunpoint or under threat of death — constitutes material support to terrorism. The motives, circumstances and beliefs of the refugee are irrelevant.

The administration does have the discretionary authority to ensure that individuals who fall under this expansive definition of terrorism are not treated unjustly. Despite the fact that in December 2007, Congress broadened this authority even further and gave DHS the ability to issue “waivers” in nearly all of these cases, DHS chose to send these letters without considering whether these individuals could or should be granted permission to remain in the U.S. The letters specifically state that the decision is final and that there is no right of appeal.

Fortunately, Chertoff’s agency stopped sending these letters in March, and in response to public outcry has promised to review all of the cases it has denied. It remains to be seen how these cases ultimately will be considered, and whether DHS will decide any time soon that these refugees can stay.

Chertoff would do well to recall the valiant fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto as his agency contemplates how to treat refugees who are not supporters of terrorism, and are in fact themselves victims of tyranny and oppression.

Gideon Aronoff is president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the international immigration agency of the American Jewish community.