POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 8, 2014
Republican lawmakers are assailing new exemptions from anti-terrorism laws the Obama administration issued this week for war zone refugees seeking to come to the United States, saying the rules are examples of unilateral action by President Barack Obama that weaken immigration security.
The administration, under pressure to respond to the crisis of more than 2.3 million Syrians who have fled the civil war in their country, published two rules Wednesday that will exempt refugees from provisions banning terrorists. The exemptions apply if the refugees provided only minor material support, such as meals or medical aid, to armed groups that have not been officially designated as terrorist organizations, or if they gave such support under pressure.
The Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, said the administration was "yet again abusing the powers granted to it" by Congress.
"With today's national security threats," Goodlatte asked, "why would we ever willingly loosen our immigration laws to allow those who have helped terrorists game the system?"
On Thursday, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio cast serious doubt on any prospects the House would act to overhaul immigration this year, saying many members of his caucus did not trust Obama to carry out enforcement measures they would enact. Many Republicans said the president's warnings that he might use executive authority to advance items on his agenda had heightened their reluctance to work with Obama on the contentious issue.
The dispute over the refugee rules was a new sign of the raw differences over immigration between the president and Republicans on Capitol Hill, in an election year when many lawmakers are eager to show they are tough on terrorism and border security.
"We are a nation of laws, and the executive branch should not be allowed to unilaterally suspend our immigration laws to provide benefits to those who have supported terrorists," said John Cornyn of Texas, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.
Administration officials and refugee advocates said the rules were a badly needed fix to sweeping anti-terrorism laws passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The new exemptions do not apply to foreigners who supported groups listed by the United States as terrorist organizations. The refugees have to pass through the lengthy existing series of criminal and national security background checks, lawyers said, and the exemptions do not come into play until the refugees have already passed all the other eligibility hurdles.
"Let's be clear, these exemptions are for individuals whom the United States does not consider threats," said Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "Nothing in these exemptions changes the rigorous, multilayered security screening we do."
Officials said the exemptions, which would immediately affect some 3,000 asylum applicants, had been in the works for years. They said the administration was acting under authority it was granted in a bipartisan compromise adopted in 2007 under President George W. Bush. That deal was struck by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has a keen interest in refugee issues, and then-Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz.
The law, Leahy said this week, had barred needy refugees who met all the other requirements "for actions so tangential and minimal that no rational person would consider them supporters" of terrorism. He said the changes "help return our nation to its historic role as a welcoming sanctuary to the world's most vulnerable populations."
Melanie Nezer, a vice president at HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit agency that works with refugees worldwide, said her organization had been pressing for more than a decade for the exemptions, which apply to people who "gave a bowl of rice or a dollar or were forced to give support."
Many thousands of the refugees who have come under anti-terrorism bans are already living in the United States, Nezer said. They are fighting in immigration court to remain here after Homeland Security officials determined that the ban applied to them based on details the refugees themselves provided on applications for green cards or citizenship.
An Ethiopian woman living near Chicago was tortured by the government police but faced a terrorism ban after she told U.S. authorities that she had provided spices for breads at a bake sale for a dissident political group, said lawyers at the National Immigrant Justice Center who are representing her.
The chaotic situation in Syria forced administration officials to speed up their work to finish the rules, as they were facing increasing demands from allies to bring more refugees to this country. The exemptions, officials said, could help Syrians who lived in places controlled by rebels the United States is supporting, who might have provided some shelter or medicine to fighters combating President Bashar Assad.
Julia Preston, New York Times