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How the Patriot Act Could Bar Syrian Refugees From Living in the U.S.

Giving support to Syrian rebel groups could halt refugees from coming to the U.S.--even as American cash flows to the very same rebels.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Henry Ridgwel/Voice of America News

 
 
 
 

Authorized by Congress, the CIA  has started sending weapons to Syrian rebels. But under a legal definition of terrorism adopted by the U.S. government after the Sept. 11 attacks, those same rebel groups are considered terrorist organizations.

The designation could prevent some of the more than 2 million refugees who have fled Syria from coming to the United States, even if they haven’t actually taken up arms against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Groups that appear on the State Department’s  list of foreign terrorist organizations have long been banned from entering the U.S. But two antiterrorism laws, the  Patriot Act and the  Real ID Act, also bar members of armed rebel groups that aren’t specifically designated as terrorist organizations.

The provisions, sometimes known as terrorism bars, apply to all armed rebel groups — even ones the U.S. is actively supporting.

The bars also deny entry to anyone who has given any kind of “material support” — transportation, shelter, money — to such groups.

The U.S. has accepted only 64 Syrian refugees in the last two years, according to a State Department spokeswoman. But it’s unclear how many, if any, Syrians have run afoul of the terrorism bars to date.

Few Syrians have been resettled overall since the conflict began there in 2011. Instead, the United Nations — which refers refugees for resettlement — has focused on aiding the refugees who are still flowing out of Syria into Lebanon, Turkey and other bordering countries.

But the U.N. is preparing to resettle up to 2,000 Syrians in the coming months, said Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington, and the terrorism bars could be a hurdle to resettling them in the U.S.

“We do foresee that there could be issues with some of these cases,” Yungk said.

David Garfield, a Washington lawyer who has represented immigrants caught up by the terrorism bars, was more blunt.

“For Syrians, I think it’s going to be a major problem,” Garfield said. “The thing about this law that’s so bizarre is that it doesn’t matter who you’re trying to overthrow.”

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman, Christopher Bentley, said in a statement to ProPublica that “any Syrians who do apply for refugee or asylum status could be subject” to the bars.

The Citizenship and Immigration  website makes clear just how sweeping the laws are: “Significantly, there is no exception under the law for ‘freedom fighters,’ so most rebel groups would be considered to be engaging in terrorist activity even if fighting against an authoritarian regime.” The website also states that refugees can be barred for “providing food, helping to set up tents, distributing literature, or making a small monetary contribution” to rebel groups.

“Material support” is defined so broadly that immigrants can be turned away for giving members of rebel groups “a bowl of rice or a few dollars,” said Melanie Nezer, senior director for policy and advocacy with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

More than 3,500 applications from those around the world seeking to come to or remain in the U.S. are currently on hold because of the terrorism bars, according to the government.  And that likely doesn’t capture the full effect of the bars. The U.N. often doesn’t try to resettle refugees in the U.S. if officials think they might be turned away because of the terrorism bars.

In 2007, Congress gave the secretary of homeland security more authority to grant exemptions to rebel groups that don’t pose a threat to the U.S. But putting the exemptions in place has proved to be a slow process that often takes years.

 
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