Refugee 'limbo': White House urged to act

Baptist Press
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Posted: Dec 23, 2010 4:45 PM
Refugee 'limbo': White House urged to act
WASHINGTON (BP)--Thousands of peaceful refugees are trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare in which they are wrongfully categorized as terrorists because of the Obama administration's failure to implement federal law, according to a coalition of religious, conservative and human rights leaders.

Representatives of the diverse coalition, which included a public policy specialist for the Southern Baptist Convention, urged the White House at a Washington, D.C., briefing to move swiftly to adopt the reforms enacted by a 2007 congressional measure.

The 2007 changes were intended to clear up "unintended consequences" produced by anti-terrorism laws passed after the 2001 attacks on the United States. The failure by the administration to apply those procedures, according to the coalition, has placed more than 5,000 people in a bureaucratic "limbo" -- individuals who already have demonstrated they are living peacefully in this country and an unknown number of refugees who live in dangerous conditions overseas.

Coalition members said they support the federal government's effort to protect the country against terrorist attacks but the problems for refugees are unnecessary.

"any legitimate refugees who pose no threat to the United States have had their applications for asylum or permanent residence or family reunification denied" because of sweeping provisions in an immigration law that was designed to protect the country against terrorism, Human Rights First President Elisa Massimino said at the Dec. 20 briefing.

The "well-meaning goals" of anti-terrorist legislation "have certainly been turned on their head when you consider some of the people being caught up in some of this bureaucratic limbo that's going on right now," Barrett Duke told the audience at the Hudson Institute. Duke is vice president for public policy and research of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

Coalition members cited the following individuals and groups among those caught in the bureaucratic morass:

-- Children who were abducted and forced to fight against rebel groups overseas.

-- Iraqis who rose up against the late dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1990s.

-- Members of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement who resisted the reign of terror by the militant Islamic regime in Khartoum.

-- A Sri Lankan male refugee who has spent more than five years in immigration proceedings, a majority of those after he was found to qualify for asylum, and remains separated from his family.

"We just think that this is outrageous that this would be going on," Duke said at the briefing, "and it's obviously the result of a bureaucracy that seems to have lost any idea of what common sense is and certainly has lost the ability to apply some level of compassion and concern about the folks who are being caught up in bureaucratic limbo."

The problem is not only that terrorism is defined in an overly broad fashion in immigration law, but that an anti-terrorism provision has swept a vast number of innocent refugees into the Tier III category for "undesignated" terrorist organizations. Even pro-democracy organizations and groups that have fought under the direction of the United States have been labeled as terrorists under Tier III.

A 2007 law championed by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., and Jon Kyl, R.-Ariz., was intended to take care of the refugee problems in anti-terrorism measures. Federal agencies have failed to implement regulations in keeping with the law's reforms, coalition members said.

As a result, peaceful refugees in this country not only face lengthy delays and separation from their families but possible deportation to the countries where they face persecution.

"It shouldn't take years to decide that someone who is already in the U.S., who has already been given legal status by the U.S. government, who is already determined to be a refugee by the U.S. government, who has already gone through more background checks and security screenings than any other type of immigrant in this country ... is a security threat or not," said Melanie Nezer, senior director of advocacy for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Michael Horowitz, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said the Obama administration "is just sitting on its hands" regarding the 2007 law. Acknowledging the coalition also had pressured the Bush administration, Horowitz said the issue is not only "protecting refugees" but "following the law, following the intention of Congress."

Coalition members sent a letter to Obama in October urging him to order the full implementation of the 2007 law's reforms within a 45-day compliance period. Among the 27 signers was ERLC President Richard Land.

"e are hoping very much to hear a declaration of leadership on this from the top very soon," Massimino said.

Duke said hundreds of Southern Baptist churches participate in refugee resettlement.

"Some of them are finding it very difficult to do that because can't get the permanent legal status that they need to actually be able to really engage in life here and know that they are going to be able to stay," Duke told the briefing audience. "This is becoming frustrating to a number of our congregations, and it certainly is to us at the Southern Baptist Convention as well."

Other speakers at the briefing were Wendy Wright, Concerned Women for America's president; Galen Carey, the National Association of Evangelicals' director of governmental affairs; and Kevin Appleby, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' director of migration policy.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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