For Refugees, Duress Waiver Not Enough - The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
Among the revelations disclosed recently in Bogota by the Colombian paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso are "war taxes" (or vacunas, which in Spanish means "immunizations") paid by Colombian generals, entrepreneurs and foreign companies to his paramilitary group. At hearings that are part of the disarmament of the paramilitaries, he named some banana-exporting companies required to pay a cent for each box of exported fruit.
Vacunas affect not only, and not even mainly, companies. They are the calamity that, for many decades, the irregular armed groups of all political colors bring upon hundreds of thousands of Colombian civilians. Most of the displaced Colombians who I met in the highlands of southern Colombia had to pay a vacuna to prosper, to produce or simply to stay alive.
Take Don Ramón, a bear-looking but soft-mannered veterinarian. A soldier from one of the irregular armed groups (and it really does not matter which one) demanded vacuna from his uncle, who refused and was killed. Other irregular soldiers left landmines around the property of Don Ramón. Unable to use his car to answer veterinary emergencies, he asked the Colombian military to remove the mines.
For the irregulars, this was treason. Don Ramón's farm was attacked, his father and his three brothers were killed, their bodies cut with a chain saw. These abuses qualify Don Ramón's family as terrorism victims and would make them eligible for refugee status in most countries of the world.
But not in the United States.
Current U.S. immigration policy would disqualify Don Ramón and his family and bar them from admission to the United States because the confiscated car would constitute "material support" to an armed group on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
The disqualification is mostly theoretical. Back in 2004, after the United States started to apply the unjustly broad definition of who is a terrorist and who is a supporter of terrorism, introduced after 9-11, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR simply stopped referring cases to the United States. Thus, while in 2003 almost 70 percent of refugees' names were submitted to the United States, in 2005 this proportion was less than 10 percent. In 2007 "no cases are being submitted because," says a UNHCR resettlement officer in Ecuador, "we realized that Washington's 'material support bar' was going to affect three quarters of bona fide Colombian refugees."
After a barrage of criticism in the media and on Capitol Hill, the Department of Homeland Security decided in April that those who provided such "material support" under duress could have the bar waived, and they could be admitted as refugees to America. For those at the State Department's refugee program, this is a big relief, but it is still not known what will be the modus operandi of the clearance process. Nongovernment groups working on this issue say the waiver process in other cases has proven time-consuming, unwieldy and ultimately insufficient for many refugees.
The waiver came too late for many Colombians I met, and it is not even sure they could have proven the "duress" circumstance, because in Colombia, "duress" is a rule not an exception.
Over the last year, a dozen waivers were issued to alleviate the impact of the draconian terrorism-related definitions in U.S. immigration law. But they do not change the basic flaw of the policy, which must be overhauled if the United States is to live up to its tradition as a safe haven for those who have "a well-founded fear of persecution."