Drawing the line between asylum seekers and safety

At the same moment President Bush ordered troops into Iraq, he also tightened requirements on those seeking entrance into the United States.

Refugees from 33 nations with possible links to the Al Qaeda terrorist organization now will automatically be held in confinement when they request asylum upon arriving in the US.

The directive is part of Operation Liberty Shield, a broad initiative by the Bush administration to tighten domestic security during the war with Iraq. But like some of the other security-tightening measures the US has put in place since the events of Sept. 11, this one is stirring a rousing debate over the appropriateness of singling out people because of one thing: their nationality.

Many security experts view the new asylum policy as a prudent measure. During a prolonged war in the Middle East, they say, members of Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups might be emboldened to seek retribution against the US. Detaining refugees until their cases are adjudicated - now likely to stretch beyond the current average of two to six months - could prevent would-be terrorists from using the asylum system to enter and move freely throughout the US.

But some human rights groups and civil libertarians say the new policy violates treaties the US has signed and threatens the objectivity of asylum officers who decide which refugees are to be detained and which are not. Some see in this latest move a severe and distressing contradiction in US policy.

"It's two-faced for the administration to declare war on Iraq in the name of liberating Iraqi people and at the same time jail them when they come here escaping human rights abuses," says Wendy Young of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children in Washington.

The new US approach to screening refugees from the 33 "blacklisted" countries is likely to come as a rude shock to people fleeing them. They are expecting a sympathetic ear - not months in a jail.

That was true for Ali Abbod, who asked that his real name not be used to protect his family in Iraq. Mr. Abbod expected the US would surely grant him asylum after he fled Iraq via Syria and China in the summer of 1999, arriving in Los Angeles in November. His hopes were riding on America's longtime opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime. Abbod told US officials he had been imprisoned and tortured in Iraq because of his religious beliefs.

Despite a dentist's report that Abbod likely had been tortured several times, the former engineer was held in federal detention facilities near Los Angeles for 16 months before his plea for asylum was officially rejected. He was shocked by what had happened, he says. He is appealing the decision and is now living in the Los Angeles area.

"When I leave China, I had other choice," says Abbod, who over the past four years has learned to speak broken English. "It's easy to me to go to Canada, easy to me to go to Europe, but I choose United States because I believe 100 percent I will get asylum." Abbod's request was rejected, say his lawyers, because the judge who heard his case did not believe his story.

While Abbod's detention was unusually long, it occurred at the discretion of a federal official. Under the new policy, refugees like Abbod will face prolonged detention - without exception. Before the latest change, most detentions lasted up to six months.

No more option for 'parole'

In the past, refugees awaiting a decision on their request for asylum could apply for parole. If granted, parole allowed them to avoid long-term detention, often spent in a prison next to common criminals. Now, when refugees from one of the 33 countries on the new US list arrive in America, they immediately will be put into detention with no option for parole.

The move stems from the Bush administration's concern that a would-be terrorist who is caught without the right documents could pose as a political refugee and then commit acts of terror while on parole.

"We have to ask, 'Are they fleeing persecution, or is this an Iraqi agent trying to blend in using a story?' " says Bill Strassberger, spokesman for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. "At this time, we have to be much more careful."

None of the men responsible for Sept. 11 gained entrance into the US through the asylum system. But other terrorism conspiracists have, including Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian sheik convicted in 1995 for plotting to blow up United Nations headquarters, and Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, a Palestinian who, after receiving parole from detention in 1997, allegedly plotted to bomb the New York subway.

Singling out refugees who come primarily from the Middle East, say many legal experts, is reasonable in light of the rising threat.

"You have to have some sort of category for the first cut, because you can't have perfect intelligence on each refugee," says Paul Kamenar of the Washington Legal Foundation, a public-interest legal group.

Before this year, appeals for asylum by people from nations with ties to Al Qaeda have been disproportionately successful. Between 1991 and 2002, more than 80 percent of Iraqis interviewed by immigration officers upon entering the country were granted asylum. The average approval rate is 31 percent. Other countries with top 10 approval rates include Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria - countries now on the list of 33.

The higher rates do not result from specific policy. Immigration officials, say experts, simply are more likely to believe the claim of someone who comes from a country with a repressive political regime.

Close tie to foreign policy

But human rights activists worry that the new policy will taint the objectivity of the asylum process, in which immigration officials grant asylum on the merits of each individual's case. Their concerns are rooted in historical precedent.

Experts say that during the cold war asylum was granted much more frequently to immigrants fleeing communist countries, while refugees from African nations with severe human rights violations were disproportionately turned away.

"That was a period of time when asylum decisions were made by officials who rubber-stamped foreign policy made at the State Department," says Bill Frelick, director of the refugee program of Amnesty USA.

Now, he and others say, the government's use of a blacklist of nations could be reinstituted whenever the US military is active overseas, or whenever the US changes its foreign policy.

In announcing the new policy March 17, Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security, said the US had similarly used a list to weigh the threat posed by asylum applicants right after Sept. 11.

According to Mr. Strassberger, immigration officers began considering applicants' ties to nations supporting Al Qaeda even before this most recent policy was announced.

"Up to this point, we have attempted to err on the side of caution in detaining people prior to the decision by the immigration judge," Strassberger says. "It's something that quite possibly we should have been doing sooner under the circumstances."

Some human rights activists acknowledge that the threat of terrorism is great enough to warrant prolonged detentions of refugees whose stories might not be immediately believable.

Still, most agree that this new security policy comes at too high a cost. The new directive, they say, undermines international treaties and flouts what has become a pillar of the human rights movement.

Under Article 3 of the Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951, nations can detain a refugee only if that individual is found to be a security risk because of his or her own behavior or background, not on their nationality.

"It's pretty clear someone should not be detained unless there is an individual determination for the need of their detention," says Eleanor Acer, director of the asylum program of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

The Bush administration cites language in the Refugee Convention that allows for exceptions during grave circumstances, such as war. But many legal experts agree that the provision applies only to individuals, not to a whole class of people or citizens of a specific country.

Shades of World War II

Indeed, the policy of detaining a group of people on the basis of their nationality alone, say some experts, is reminiscent of the nation's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. A new US move to significantly redraw asylum law would reverberate around the world.

"Other countries contemplating more severe detention regimes will take their cue from us that this is OK," says James Hathaway, an asylum law expert at the University of Michigan.

Abbod, for one, was surprised once he arrived in America to find himself living next to people who reminded him of the very man from which he was fleeing.

"When I arrived to Los Angeles, I said, 'Thank you, God, everything's OK," says Abbod. "But no. In prison I see men even like Saddam Hussein."

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