Hearing on May 18, 2017
The Michael Davis, Jr. and Danny Oliver in Honor of State and Local Law Enforcement Act, H.R. 2431, would harm refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless people fleeing persecution. This legislation worsens already expansive laws under the guise of targeting terrorism that instead has consequences for refugees and asylees. It expands the United States immigration detention system that currently detains many torture survivors, asylum seekers, families with children, and others seeking protection from persecution in their home countries. H.R. 2431 would directly result in the detention of asylum seeking children and their families, a practice documented to be traumatic. It is believed that asylum seekers may make up the majority of immigrants held in immigration detention; however, for three years U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has failed to abide by its legal mandate to provide Congress with annual data on asylum seekers in detention, leading to a lack of transparency regarding whom the agency is detaining and why. Additionally, H.R. 2431 unwisely delegates the enforcement of national immigration laws to state and local law enforcement agencies despite demonstrated instances of profiling and subsequent weakening of community safety.
In 2001, Congress enacted legislation that significantly broadened the definition of “terrorist activity” found within the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Though well-meaning in its intent, the definition has proven to be so broad it includes activities that have no connection to terrorism. For example, refugees who fled because they were forced to provide money or services to terrorists, and those who supported freedom fighters rising up against the most repressive regimes in the world, are mislabeled as “terrorists” under the expansive law. Trafficking victims – including children – forced to work for criminal organizations can also be mislabeled as “terrorists.”
The provisions that created these new bars to admission are collectively known as the Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds (TRIG) provisions. For over a decade, TRIG provisions have been causing tremendous and unnecessary hardship for individuals who have fled persecution.
Under these provisions, many refugees seeking safety – including those with family already in the United States – are barred from entering the U.S. with little to no ground for appeal. In addition, many refugees and asylees already granted protection and living in the U.S. legally are barred from obtaining lawful permanent residence and reuniting with their spouses and children who remain in dangerous situations abroad.
A bipartisan coalition in the 110th Congress led by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) amended the law in 2007 to authorize the Administration to grant exemptions from the law’s broad terrorism-related provisions on a case-by-case basis to people with no actual connection to terrorism. However, because of the sweeping nature of the law, and the Administration’s slow implementation of its authority to grant exemptions, thousands of people in the United States and abroad have been stuck in legal limbo by immigration law definitions of “terrorism” that are widely acknowledged to be needlessly harming refugees that the United States should instead be protecting.
As Congress considers reforms to our immigration system, it should be fixing this problem for the thousands of refugees and asylees who have been mislabeled as “terrorists.”
Instead, H.R. 2431 would make the problem even worse.
Sections 202 and 203, “Terrorist Bar to Good Moral Character” and “Terrorist Bar to Naturalization,” would bar from a finding of good moral character and naturalization, anyone who is described as a “terrorist” under section 212(a)(3)(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. While on its face this may seem reasonable, in fact, this provision would bar law abiding refugees who have lived in the U.S. for years or even decades from naturalization.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice interpret the term “terrorist activity” to include any amount and all types of support to armed opposition to any established government, no matter how repressive, and even to include acts committed under duress. Support can include providing small amounts of money or food, attending meetings or joining groups, and even political speech. Under these agencies’ interpretation of the law, even if this “support” is coerced, it can bar a refugee’s admission to the United States or adjustment to permanent resident status.
Under this legal interpretation, even survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising are considered “terrorists,” along with: Iraqis who rose up against Saddam Hussein and fought alongside Coalition forces; Afghan groups that fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with U.S. support; democratic opposition parties in Sudan and the South Sudanese opposition movement (that is now the ruling party of South Sudan); nearly all Ethiopian and Eritrean political parties and movements; religious and other minority groups that fought the ruling military junta in Burma; and, any group that has used armed force against the regime in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
The assumption that “aliens described in section 212(a)(3)” are “Persons Endangering the National Security” is a false one. This is one of the core problems with the INA’s terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds, and is also the reason why Congress gave the Administration statutory authority to grant people exemptions from those grounds. We are concerned that this provision could even result in the denial of naturalization for refugees who have gone through the arduous process of being granted an exemption from the terrorism bars by the Department of Homeland Security.