Material Support Bar Lifted -- Kind Of

In the Federal Register today, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff published notice of his decision not to apply the material support of terrorism bar to certain would-be immigrants. The bar is a provision, created in earlier legislation and expanded in the USA Patriot and REAL ID Acts, intended to help prosecute those who don't commit acts of terror but in other ways support terrorism.

However, the provision has been used to deny political asylum and refugee status to two classes of deserving applicants -- those who have been or supported freedom fighters and people whom terrorists have compelled into assistance by force.

Several studies have documented these cases, enumerating among their examples a Colombian man kidnapped and forced at gunpoint to dig graves; a Burmese girl who, at the age of 11, gave water to revolutionary fighters staying in her family's home; a Liberian woman raped by roving rebel soldiers who took over her home and forced her to do their laundry and otherwise serve them. These people were all denied entrance on the rationale that they had aided terrorists. Even U.S. troops who served in Iraq or Vietnam could fall into the terrorist category under these definitions, for taking up arms against sovereign governments.

Chertoff's new decisions exempt people who can prove they aided terrorists only "under duress" and those related to certain groups that match up with U.S. policies -- groups our government considers pro-democracy fighters in Burma, Myanmar, Tibet, and Cuba -- and those groups alone. This is a good step. It provides a more consistent front to U.S. policies -- of the Cold War. Fighting oppression in any other countries, particularly in any our government likes, still makes you a terrorist in our immigration system.

But, for those it does protect, this decision -- if adhered to by immigration officers and judges -- may save lives. Remember, these are in large part not "illegals"; they are trying to come here through official channels, having fled injustice, oppresion, and persecution. Many have been designated refugees by the United Nations. They're not searching for a better life, they're just trying to stay alive.

This takes us back to a favorite point at Open Veins, that ignoring nuance and specificity in the debate over and legislating of immigration policy spells disaster. Many of the denied should qualify under our existing policies, if not for the vague tenets of "material support" and "terrorist organizations". Were the terms better defined in writing, had our legislators paid more attention to detail, this problem would not have arisen.

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