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Homeland Security

13 April 2007

U.S. Balancing Needs of Refugees, Thwarting Terrorism

President seeks from Congress more discretion on refugees, asylum seekers

Washington - The United States is working to ensure that its traditional refugee and asylum program is not affected adversely by the need to fight terrorism, according to government officials.

“We are deeply committed to ensuring that those who deserve humanitarian relief from our immigration system receive it, and that America continues to be a beacon of hope and protection for the persecuted,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a January announcement that he planned to use discretionary authority to permit consideration of applications for refugee or asylum status for some groups that, under duress, might have provided assistance to terrorist organizations.

In 2005, some 54,000 refugees or asylum seekers were resettled in the United States, a larger number than in the rest of the world combined. More than 2.6 million refugees have been settled in the United States since 1975, according to the State Department. The United States is also the largest donor to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

But in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the Congress passed legislation containing language that has created a challenge for the U.S. refugee program. President Bush currently is seeking a legislative change that would give back to the executive branch discretion it once had to deal with certain cases, said Kelly Ryan, deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, in April 11 remarks at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington public policy research institution.

The two laws that have affected refugees and asylum seekers -- the USA Patriot Act and the Real ID Act of 2005 -- adopted a broad definition of what constitutes a "terrorist organization." They also include a broad definition of what constitutes "material support" to a terrorist organization, construing material support to include transportation, communications, funds or "other material financial benefit." Both terrorists and those who provide terrorists with “material support” are barred from entering the United States. The laws did not address the situation of those who might have provided such support under duress.

Refugee groups affected by the material support provision include Colombians, Burmese, Cubans and Chinese, according to Ryan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has issued waivers for eight affected groups of refugees who might have provided material support under duress. In August 2006, for example, she issued a waiver unblocking thousands of Burma's ethnic Karen people, now living in refugee camps in Thailand, from applying for resettlement in the United States. (See related article.)

In helping refugees and asylum seekers, the Department of State works with the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services from the initial identification of the refugees until the time they are resettled in the United States. The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration funds the initial resettlement costs for each refugee for the first 120 days of his or her stay in the United States. After 120 days, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in Heath and Human Services pays for a variety of services, including medical assistance, skills training and social adjustment and aid for victims of torture. (See related article.)

Chertoff on January 19 exercised his discretionary authority “to permit consideration of applications for refugee status, asylum or adjustment of status from some who have provided material support to groups while under duress.”

He also waived the material support to terrorism provisions for those who provided support to eight groups identified by Secretary Rice: the Karen National Union and Karen National Liberation Army, Chin National Front and Chin National Army, Chin National League for Democracy, Kayan New Land Party, Arakan Liberation Party, Tibetan Mustangs, Cuban Alzados and Karenni National Progressive Party.

Speaking for Homeland Security at the Heritage Foundation, acting Assistant Secretary Paul Rosenzweig said President Bush also is seeking from Congress a waiver for those who took up arms as allies of the United States, in particular, the Hmong and Montagnards of Southeast Asia.

The president is seeking a legislative change that would restore to the executive branch the discretion it previously had to deal with refugees on a case-by-case basis, Ryan said. Language in the Immigration and Nationality Act includes some waiver or exemption authority, but this authority has been exercised only recently and might not be broad enough to cover all contingencies, according to Brian W. Walsh, a senior legal research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who also participated in the program.

Both Rosenzweig and Ryan said the United States is seeking to ensure balance between the needs of legitimate refugees and asylum seekers and the demands for increased security. Rosenzweig said he shared Ryan’s “frustration and regret this process has not moved as quickly as we would have liked.”

Ryan said the State Department had the money and authority to admit up to 70,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 2006 but was able to admit only approximately 50,000. “We don’t have the full discretion we would like to have,” she said.

For 2007, the State Department has the authority to admit 70,000 and the funding for 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers; it hopes to admit 60,000. There is “strong bipartisan support for the refugee program,” Ryan said.

Final determinations on all applications under the Refugee Admissions Program are the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security.

A video link to the Heritage Foundation presentation is available on the foundation’s Web site. The full text of Chertoff’s January announcement is available on the Department of Homeland Security Web site.

For more information on U.S. policy, see Humanitarian Assistance and Refugees, Response to Terrorism. A fact sheet on the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is available on the State Department Web site.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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