Law Lumps Together Terrorists and Victims
"The law, in effect, lumps together in the same category victims of terrorists with the terrorists themselves," says Carey, who heads IRC's refugee resettlement program.
Law lumps together terrorists and victims
By ROBERT CAREY
If John F. Kennedy were not a U.S. citizen and had to ask for refugee status in today's United States, he would be turned back by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
The reason? An innocent-sounding phrase that indiscriminately hits friends and foes alike: ''material support.'' Back in the 1960s, JFK provided ''material support'' to a group that engaged in what is today branded officially as ``terrorist activity.''
The U.S. Patriot Act and other national-security legislation is worded in such a way that anyone who offers ''material support'' to someone who carries out ''terrorist activity'' will see his request for refugee status denied by the Department of Homeland Security. Often this ''material support'' (such as ransom, food or shelter) is given unwillingly, even under duress. Yet the law, in effect, lumps together in the same category victims of terrorists with the terrorists themselves. This is unjust and inhuman and is rightly denounced in editorials across the country.
But there is another problem with the ''material support'' law: Its reach is retroactive, as are its definitions. The definition is so vague that it applies to someone who almost half a century ago was a member of a guerrilla movement that received assistance from the U.S. government.
Which brings me back to JFK and the Bay of Pigs, the April 1961 attack by a group of U.S.-trained and -equipped Cuban exiles. Shortly after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, groups of his opponents known as alzados en armas -- literally, raised in arms, but certainly not terrorists -- established themselves in the mountains of Escambray in central Cuba. The existence of these groups of alzados was part of the strategy for launching the Bay of Pigs attack.
Why discuss the Bay of Pigs today? Isn't it history? No, not for some 160 Cubans who have asked to be accepted as refugees into the United States. For them -- for these Cubans who were alzados or who provided ''material support'' to the alzados -- this membership or this support is a reason for a red flag on their refugee application form. ''Material support'' -- retroactively and unjustly -- kicks in.
The discussion is not academic for 320 Cubans (the refugee applicants and their families). This could be, for instance, a woman proudly stating during her refugee interview that she has been bringing parcels of food and medicine to her grandfather rotting for up to two dozen years in Castro's jail. The grandfather may now be released, or deceased, but having in the past provided this ''material support'' could very well jeopardize the woman's chances of getting refugee status in the U.S. The alzados were wiped out by 1966, yet now, eight presidents later -- in the United States, not in Cuba -- the DHS is applying a law that punishes them and those who helped them although their fear of persecution by Castro's government is more than well founded.
At the International Rescue Committee we have resettled almost half a million refugees since World War II. Close to one fifth of them were Cubans. We are used to difficult situations created by conflicts and oppressive regimes, but this is a difficulty that was created by the U.S. legislation.
Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Norm Coleman, R-Minn., submitted an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act that offered a comprehensive solution. It proposed that the secretary of state determine which groups are and which are not terrorist so that our allies not be punished by the law, and that the exception be made for those persons who are not a threat to U.S. national security. Unfortunately, it was voted down last week.
Other legislative fixes should be urgently proposed. At stake is our sense of compassion and the duty to offer refuge to those who flee, not fuel, evil.