Exile Off Main Street: Refugees and America’s Ingratitude

Having received death threats for cooperating with American forces in Iraq, Saman Kareem Ahmad, a Kurd who worked as a translator for four years with U.S. Marines, was admitted to the United States on a special visa in 2006. Buoyed by recommendations from the likes of General David Petraeus, he has spent the last two years at the Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia, preparing Marines for what awaits them in Iraq. In February, however, the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services summarily denied his application for a green card. The reason? A bizarre rule that has transformed the quest for refugee admission, asylum approval, or permanent residence into an unending nightmare. That Ahmad had once served with the militia of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), a group that fought a long guerrilla action against Saddam Hussein’s government, was his Catch 22: because it had taken up arms against an established government, the KDP was regarded as a “terrorist organization.” No matter that it was Saddam’s government and that the U.S. covertly supported the KDP’s actions and that the KDP now belongs to a coalition that has seats in the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad. Having been part of a “terrorist organization,” Ahmad was out in the cold.

The Ahmad case was saturated with such absurdity that when Karen DeYoung wrote about it in the Washington Post, it sparked a minor furor among government officials as well as a general readership. In response, the U.S. immigration service announced that it would temporarily suspend the denial of green cards to refugees and other applicants with ties to groups that had battled foreign dictatorships. But human rights groups and refugee agencies suspect that once the emotions stirred by the callous treatment of a man who had risked everything for the U.S. war effort have cooled, the status quo will be restored and the wall rebuilt.

The story of Saman Ahmad counts as exceptional only in the controversy it has generated. Indeed, my notebooks from two years of interviewing refugees, many of whom aided the United States abroad but were themselves denied entry to the U.S., overflow with similar tales. Frigid bureaucratic letters identical to the one Ahmad received were also dispatched to an Iraqi who joined the uprising against Saddam Hussein in Basra in 1991; a Burmese lawyer who smuggled anti-regime brochures from Thailand; a Sudanese man admitted to the U.S. as a refugee and now charged with having been a private in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) when he was seven years old; and an Afghan limousine driver in New York who at the age of twelve distributed literature on behalf of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, an organization that no longer exists and many of whose former leaders now hold high offices in the government of President Hamid Karzai.

“I liked the Americans, that’s why I helped them . . . If America does not want me, they can throw me to the river . . .,” Xo Chia Vue, a mild-mannered 65-year-old whom I met in Bangkok, told me. He belongs to a hill tribe of northern Laos, the Hmong, which the CIA recruited to fight against the spread of Communism in a sort of sideshow to the Vietnam conflict that ended when the Communist Pathet Lao seized power and the Hmong fled to the mountains or across the Mekong River to Thailand. While his two younger brothers escaped through Thailand and settled in California, Xo Chia Vue has spent three decades in the mountains, his combatant past now acting against him although he fought on behalf of the United States. Xo Chia Vue smiled sadly as he recounted how he once ran to the aid of two U.S. pilots who came down on parachutes after their planes were shot down: “I used all my life for Americans . . . they must, they should take me . . .”

I also heard echoes of this abandonment from those who have served alongside the Americans in Iraq. In Beirut I met a Shiite Iraqi whom I will call The Soldier. He endured three years in Saddam Hussein’s jails for opposing the regime. Once released, he joined the Free Iraqi Forces, a group organized by Ahmed Chalabi and trained by U.S. officers. The Soldier fought against Saddam’s forces during the U.S. invasion and later served alongside U.S. troops in several American units. In 2004, after eleven Iraqis who worked under The Soldier’s supervision were kidnapped (one was beheaded, the others shot dead), The Soldier’s family implored him to leave. He fled to Beirut.

In February 2007, he delivered photocopies of his documents and ID cards to the American embassy in Beirut. “I expected that they might help me,” he said. “Or perhaps that they would protect me. I watched a lot of American movies on television so I supposed . . .” His words trailed off into incomprehension. The embassy never contacted him. But even if his case had been heard, owing to his membership in the (U.S.-trained) Free Iraqi Forces, he would not have qualified for refugee status. Along with the Hmong and other indigenous peoples who furthered America’s cause at enormous risk—Vietnam’s Montagnards, Tibet’s Mustang, Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, and on down the list—Iraqis who have worked for the Americans in Iraq routinely find themselves victimized by a new and often capriciously interpreted piece of “anti-terrorist” legislation, passed into law by the very country they served and in which they dreamed of finding a haven.


It was understandable that, in the wake of the tide of grief, fear, and patriotism that crested after 9/11, there would be demands to seal America’s flanks against potential terrorists and their supporters. But as the laws have been amended, the U.S. seems to have become confused as to who exactly qualifies as a terrorist and who as a victim of terrorism, a rather telling distinction. Also lost in the frenetic shuffle to secure the homeland was the obvious fact that the perpetrators of 9/11 entered the U.S. not because of a failure of immigration legislation but because of a failure of intelligence on American soil.

Since 1996 the State Department has maintained a list of the most lethal Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The list—known as Tier I—may be viewed on the State Department’s Web site. Leaving aside the fact that terrorism tends to be an ever-growing, constantly morphing threat, the latest roster to be published contains the names of forty-four terror groups.

The Tier I list at first defined “terrorism” as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.” A month after the 9/11 attacks, in October 2001, President Bush signed the hastily prepared USA PATRIOT Act (a carefully crafted acronym: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism), which initiated a second list of 59 groups, known as Tier II, its Internet version last updated in December 2004. As opposed to the 1996 measure, the Patriot Act defined “terrorist activity” so broadly that it encompasses virtually any deed, even if carried out under threat of death or against a brutal regime. The Patriot Act also liberalized the definition of “terrorist organizations”: In addition to the Tier I and Tier II lists of known and actual terrorist groups, a terrorist organization could now be any “group of two or more individuals, whether organized or not,” which engages in any form of “terrorist activity” thusly defined.

Here we pass through the looking glass. No formal list of suspect organizations defines the catchall category known as Tier III, just ad hoc decisions about groups (some long extinct) made on the fly by unnamed U.S. government officials. The category contains, with no distinction between them, genuine heroes—who carry out an armed struggle against a murderous dictatorship—and villains who blow up planes, civilians, and themselves. The revised anti-terrorist legislation raised the exclusion bar with a particularly devastating addition: those who provide “material support” to persons labeled “terrorists” cannot be admitted to the U.S. either. Often those who have “the material support problem,” as it is known by human rights groups, are themselves casualties of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, and other human rights violations. Slamming the door to America in their faces because of their suffering amounts to a grand and shameful exercise in blaming the victim.


The first red flag raised was the number of Colombians admitted as refugees to the United States. In 2004, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ecuador reported that almost half of its Colombian refugees accepted for resettlement worldwide went to the United States. By 2006 this figure had fallen to 2 percent. The State Department, explaining why the administration locked the door, noted in a matter-of-fact way: “Many Colombian refugee applicants have made payments . . . to armed guerilla or paramilitary groups as a form of protection tax or vacuna, often made under the threat of harm to themselves or their families.” Indeed.

I decided to go to the field to investigate after I read about a particularly horrifying case of two Colombian sisters who had been raped by guerrillas. The guerrillas then killed the husband of one of the sisters and stole the family’s livestock as a war tax. Under the Patriot Act, the extorted farm animals could have been considered “material support to a terrorist organization.” The sisters, who fled to Ecuador, were resettled in Canada rather than the United States.

In Ibarra, on the Ecuadorian side of the border with Colombia, I met “Wilson.” After paramilitaries murdered his son, they forced Wilson at gunpoint to pay a vacuna. He mentioned this in his refugee registration interview, an admission that sealed his fate. Although Wilson himself was an obvious victim of terrorism, the U.S. barred him for “materially supporting” a terrorist group.

In Quito, I met “Gabriel,” another refugee from Colombia and a taxi driver back home. A band of leftist guerrillas had forced Gabriel to drive them to their drug-producing laboratory. Gabriel knew what was at stake: One of his neighbors had watched as his parents and three children were killed after he disobeyed a band of irregulars. Having shuttled the guerrillas several times to their clandestine laboratory, Gabriel fled to a supposedly safer place in another part of Colombia. But soon a menacing note caught up with him: “We know where you are.” Gabriel left Ecuador with his wife and son. But that act of transporting the guerrillas in his car put him squarely in the category of those who provide “material support” to terrorists. (As we spoke about his experiences, Gabriel’s cell phone rang. He answered warily, listened for a moment, then said in Spanish: “No, I cannot come.” After hanging up, he explained: His mother-in-law, whose brother had just been found cut to pieces in his car, wanted to know if he would attend the funeral.)

If nearly anyone carrying on a violent struggle against authority can be labeled a “terrorist,” then even those fighting on behalf of American interests (against Lao Communists or Saddam Hussein, for instance) fit the definition. And what of those who harbor these “fighters”? The U.S. unequivocally backed the last two countries that declared their independence: East Timor and Kosovo. The leaders of these newly independent countries both have a combatant past. Xanana Gusmão, once a Timorese resistance leader (and later the first president of Timor Leste), has even been received in the White House. And I vividly remember a picture of Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton administration’s special envoy to Kosovo, sitting with two individuals from the Kosovo Liberation Army, one of them holding a machine gun. One recalls the photo easily because Holbrooke, respectful of the Muslim custom, had taken off his shoes, while his Kalashnikov-toting hosts kept their boots on.

People like Dominic Kur, a South Sudanese whom I met in Sherkole, a refugee camp in Ethiopia, live on the receiving end of the ferocious logic that blindly punishes some former guerrillas, but not others. In the photo I keep of him, Kur, for nine years a soldier of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), holds a letter from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) denying him resettlement in the U.S. on the basis of “terrorist activities.” Next to Kur stands his wife, Angelina (at the time pregnant), with a letter sent by DHS on the same day, informing her that she and their children were welcome to come to the United States as refugees. Fittingly, the same day—July 20, 2006—that the letters to Dominic and Angelina were written, President George W. Bush welcomed at the White House Salva Kiir, the leader of the SPLA and now president of southern Sudan.

The rules that guide these friend-or-foe determinations often appear to have been devised by people with a fetishistic taste for the absurd. The People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), for instance, appears on the State Department’s dire Tier I list of terrorist organizations. At the same time, according to retired Army Colonel Margaret D. Stock, an analyst at West Point, “The Department of Defense has designated Iraq-based members of the PMOI as ‘protected persons’ under the Fourth Geneva Convention [relative to the protection of civilians in time of war], and is maintaining PMOI members at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. At Camp Ashraf, and in full awareness of [State’s] designation of the PMOI as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, U.S. military personnel provide ‘material support’ to the group.”

Refugees cleared for travel to the U.S. can at the last moment be labeled “members of a terrorist group” and yanked off the departure list. This happened to 25 Burmese refugees I met in the Ban Don Yang camp on the Thai side of the border. They had already been trained in survival skills such as using a microwave and opening a bank account. They were bitter but resigned: “If the United States does not want me,” one said, “I will learn Scandinavian [sic] and go there if they accept me. Yet, being designated by DHS as a “member of a terrorist organization” or a “provider of material support to terrorists” carries a stigma that can’t be so easily wiped away.


In the confused aftermath of 9/11, the number of refugees arriving in the U.S. plummeted from almost 70,000 to a mere 27,000 in 2002. The numbers have slowly picked up again, but in 2006 only 41,000 arrived and in the last fiscal year just over 48,000. In 2006, the State Department admitted that as a result of anti terrorist legislation, 12,000 legally qualified refugees may have been barred.

In one instance, the State Department made a generous offer to resettle more than 10,000 Burmese refugees stranded in camps in Thailand, mostly ethnic Karen. When I arrived in Bangkok in March 2006, my own organization—the International Rescue Committee—was charged with pre-screening the refugees. Their files were ready, piled up in big plastic transparent boxes. But DHS abruptly shut the door that had been opened, citing “terrorism related inadmissibilities.” The mood in the camps collapsed. It was as if the groom had backed out of the wedding.

Tham Hin is one of these camps—a remote, overcrowded place near the Burmese border housing some 10,000 refugees. All the huts have been constructed entirely of bamboo (a rule imposed by the Thai authorities to give the camp a feel of impermanence, in line with the fiction that it exists only as a “temporary shelter”). Most refugees have been living here for ten years or more. I immediately fell for the charm of an 84-year-old teacher named Lincoln. A soft-spoken but hard-thinking man, with a relatively recent copy of the English-language Bangkok Post tucked in his canvas shoulder bag, Lincoln told me that his departure had been delayed because of some “bureaucratic misunderstanding,” but that he soon would be traveling to the United States. His nephews, he explained, ran a sushi bar in Miami.

But the “bureaucratic misunderstanding” that Lincoln minimized was the “material support issue,” and it affected not only Lincoln but also others from Tham Hin. The U.S. deemed Lincoln inadmissible because he had received training from the Karen National Union, although he had never held a gun. Another refugee I befriended, Albert Gray, was deemed inadmissible because he had been a proud captain in the Karen National Union and did fight against the Burmese military junta. Thousands of other Karen were disqualified, sometimes for sins no greater than giving a glass of water or a bowl of rice to a combatant.

As Tham Hin became a cause célèbre among humanitarian organizations, refugee advocates’ groups lobbied in Washington and a barrage of editorials scorned the administration for being overzealous and for cheapening America’s commitment to resettle refugees. It took many months for the Departments of State and of Homeland Security to combine their expertise and produce a solution: They would use their discretionary authority—which the immigration law grants them—to exempt the population of Tham Hin from the material support bar to admission. The “waiver” was issued on May 3, 2006. But it did not apply to people like Lincoln or Albert Gray or anyone who had been remotely involved in the resistance to the Burmese junta; only to those who provided “material support” to them. As a result, by the end of that summer one-fifth of the candidates for resettlement from Tham Hin were still caught in an unending bind.

Waivers have, it should be noted, been the only way around DHS’s wrecking of the State Department’s resettlement plans. The deputy director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Jonathan Scharfen, recently announced that these two departments will begin compiling lists of groups for waivers. He told the Washington Post, “We want to do this in a way that is careful and deliberate, but also with efficiency and dispatch.”

But who knows what “careful and deliberate” process prompted staff members at the State Department and DHS to conclude that “material support” provided under duress to a Tier III—or undesignated—terror group counts as a lesser evil than providing the same support under duress to a more dangerous and brutal group from the Tier I or Tier II lists? Wouldn’t a refugee with a gun to his head be more inclined to pay money, surrender his livestock, or give a ride to someone if the gun and demand came from a group with a known propensity for violence?

Yet the first waiver for material support provided under duress issued in February 2007 involved only support to Tier III groups. Then, two months later, came a decision to permit waivers for material support provided under duress to the heavy-hitting terror groups in Tier I and Tier II, and pursuant to this, in September 2007, DHS finally issued a waiver for those who provided “material support” under duress to the much feared Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC).


In failing to act on the cases of the most dramatic and deserving victims of the bureaucratic maze created by the Patriot Act—refugees from Iraq who have aided the U.S. effort there—DHS finally went too far. During the first four years of the war in Iraq, fewer than 500 Iraqis were allowed into the United States. After an uproar in the media, in February 2007 the State Department said it would admit 7,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of that September. Given that the exodus from Iraq ranges between one and two million people, and given the nature of the U.S. role in Iraq, this was a paltry figure. Yet not even this minimal quota could be achieved. In March 2007, eight Iraqi refugees were admitted; in April, one; in May, one; in June, 63; in July, 57. By the end of September, only 1,608 of the 7,000 slots had been filled.

Media and advocacy groups assailed DHS, their criticism amplified by letters from U.S. military personnel whose endangered translators and local staff were being left to their fates. Congress held hearings and offered legislation, almost to no avail.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who chairs the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee in the House of Representatives, called for one of those hearings. The purpose was to focus on “the obligation of the United States to assist Iraqi refugees and those under threat from insurgents because they assisted the United States.”

When then Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey testified that the delay with admissions of the Iraqi refugees was being created by DHS, Rep. Ackerman inquired about the case of an Iraqi family who paid a $7,000 ransom for their kidnapped nephew, who was then killed. Rep. Ackerman asked if this ransom would be considered “material support for terrorists.”

Secretary Sauerbrey seemed unsure: “It remains to be seen how it will be interpreted by DHS . . . was the kidnapping a terrorist activity or a crime.” Rep. Ackerman interrupted: “Kidnapping is a crime, it is a crime in this country . . . having acted under duress.” Sauerbrey tried to explain: “A lot of activity has been going on over recent months trying to address this issue of ‘material support’ . . .”

Now Rep. Ackerman exploded: “ . . . I don’t think that there is one out of any 535 of us who voted on [the Patriot Act]—whether for it or against it—who would have ever contemplated that somebody who paid ransom to get back a loved one who was kidnapped would be ‘materially supporting a terrorist or terrorism.’ That clearly could not be the intent of anybody, let alone the entire Congress, in this legislation. And if somebody at Homeland Security . . . is saying that that’s the intent of the Congress . . . then I don’t know that there is any justice here.”

Secretary Sauerbrey nodded in agreement. She didn’t have much to say. It was left to Rep. Ackerman to summarize the Patriot Act’s effect on the refugee admission program: “We’ve met the enemy. And they are us.”

Anna Husarska is senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee.

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