Trump administration may change rules that allow terror victims to immigrate to US

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, April 21 (Reuters) - When Raj, a Sri Lankan fisherman, sought refuge in the United States in 2005, he had precisely the kind of fear of returning home that U.S. asylum laws require.

In 2004, he was kidnapped by the separatist rebel group the Tamil Tigers and had to pay $500 to secure his release, according to Raj, his lawyer and court records reviewed by Reuters. The group then demanded more money, which he could not pay after a tsunami destroyed his house and fishing boat.

Raj, 42, who asked that only his first name be used because of the sensitive nature of his situation, decided to flee. He boarded a plane using a false Canadian passport and requested asylum upon arriving in the United States.

RELATED: Photos of Raj, an immigrant from Sri Lanka

5 PHOTOS
Terror victim seeks refuge in the U.S.
See Gallery
Terror victim seeks refuge in the U.S.
Raj, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, sits in his apartment in San Diego, California, U.S., April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker
Raj, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, sits in his apartment in San Diego, California, U.S., April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker
Raj, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, sits in his apartment in San Diego, California, U.S., April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker
Raj, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, sits in his apartment in San Diego, California, U.S., April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

There was a catch, however. U.S. laws ban immigration by anyone who has provided "material support" to terrorists, and the Tamil Tigers are designated as a terrorist group by the United States. A judge ruled that Raj's ransom payment to them constituted material support. (Read an excerpt of the letter petitioning the U.S. government for a waiver in this case: http://tmsnrt.rs/2oPsqQM)

Ultimately, Raj was granted asylum in 2011 because of rules that allow for waivers for people who provided aid to terrorists under duress. He now lives in San Diego, California, works in an Indian restaurant and hopes to become a citizen. (Read an excerpt of the letter from the U.S. government granting the waiver: http://tmsnrt.rs/2oPy7yx)

Raj said it was "a big relief" when he finally received his green card around a year after receiving asylum. "I am not a terrorist," he said.

Now the Trump administration is debating whether to rescind the waivers that have allowed Raj, and tens of thousands of others, to immigrate to the United States in the past decade (See graphic on waivers: http://tmsnrt.rs/2oPssIo). Some immigration hardliners are concerned the exemptions could allow terrorists to slip into the country.

U.S. President Donald Trump directed the secretaries of State and Homeland Security, in consultation with the attorney general, to consider abolishing the waivers in an executive order in March. That directive was overshadowed by the same order's temporary ban on all refugees and on travelers from six mostly Muslim nations.

RELATED: Protests erupt throughout US cities over Trump immigration ban

34 PHOTOS
Protests erupt throughout US cities over Trump immigration ban
See Gallery
Protests erupt throughout US cities over Trump immigration ban
Demonstrators gather in Copley Square for the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
An international traveler smiles as she walks past the protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Laura Buckman
Demonstrators yell slogans during protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Ted Soqui
Sarah Ijaz joins the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
BOSTON - JANUARY 29: People hold signs as they march from Copley Square to the Mass. State House in Boston on Jan. 29, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's executive order banning people from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Muslim women pray during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" protesting U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
People gather to pray in baggage claim during a protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Laura Buckman
Eight year-old Esma, an Irish-Moroccan-American, prays with other Muslim women during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" protesting U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Demonstrators spell out "# No Muslim Ban" during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Izzy Berdan (R) joins the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Muslim women pray during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" protesting U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Muslim women pray during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" protesting U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Demonstrators gather in Copley Square for the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
An activist holds a sign outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Activists gather outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Activists gather outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Activists gather outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Samah Mansur, from Egypt, takes part in the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Activists gather outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
People gather to protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Laura Buckman
BOSTON - JANUARY 29: People hold signs as they gather in Copley Square in Boston on Jan. 29, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's executive order banning people from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - JANUARY 29: People gather in Copley Square in Boston on Jan. 29, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's executive order banning people from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 29: Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., speaks with an ACLU legal observer during the protest at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. Protests erupted at airports around the country following President Trump's executive order restricting travel from several Islamic countries. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29: A protester holds up a sign that reads, 'Banning Immigrants is UnAmerican!,' as she stands with others at the Miami International Airport against the executive order that President Donald Trump signed clamping down on refugee admissions and temporarily restricting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries on January 29, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Demonstrators gathered at airports across the country in protest of the order. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29: Protesters stand together at the Miami International Airport against the executive order that President Donald Trump signed clamping down on refugee admissions and temporarily restricting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries on January 29, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Demonstrators gathered at airports across the country in protest of the order. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29: Susan Barimo joins with other protesters as they stand together at the Miami International Airport against the executive order that President Donald Trump signed clamping down on refugee admissions and temporarily restricting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries on January 29, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Demonstrators gathered at airports across the country in protest of the order. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
People gather outside Terminal 4 during a protest against Donald Trump's travel ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
International travelers walk past protestors holding signs as they protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Laura Buckman
Protesters at Discovery Green Park during Super Bowl events in Houston, Texas, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Trish Badger
Dozens of pro-immigration demonstrators cheer and hold sign as international passengers arrive at Dulles International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump's executive order baring visitors, refugees and immigrants from certain countries to the United States, in Chantilly, Virginia, in suburban Washington, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Theiler
Activists march to the US Capitol to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Activists march to the US Capitol to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Activists gather at the US Capitol to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The bans on refugees and travel were challenged in lawsuits, and their implementation has been suspended pending full hearings in court. But the waiver review was not included in the court rulings, so that part of the order remains in effect.

Rules governing the waivers have been hammered out over the last decade with both Democratic and Republican support. But in recent years they have drawn fire from some conservative lawmakers, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he was a senator.

A State Department official said this week the department is working with DHS to review the waivers and is "looking at actually pulling them back in accordance with the executive order."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to give details on the timing of the review or its likely outcome. The Department of Justice declined to comment.

KURDS, KAREN, HMONG

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Congress expanded the definition of who could be considered a terrorist and what constituted "material support" to terrorism in rules now known as the Terrorism Related Inadmissibility Grounds.

Those changes ensnared people like Raj who were coerced or inadvertently provided support to terrorists, as well as members of persecuted ethnic groups that supported rebel organizations, and even U.S.-allied groups fighting against authoritarian regimes.

Without an exemption, members of Kurdish groups that battled Saddam Hussein's forces in Iraq, Hmong groups who fought alongside U.S. troops in Vietnam, or some Cubans who fought Fidel Castro's regime would not be allowed to immigrate to the United States.

Under the exemptions, U.S. authorities have the discretion to grant people residency in the United States after they have passed background checks and are found to pose no threat to national security.

Congress initially passed waivers to the terrorism bars in 2007 with bipartisan support, and in the years that followed both the Bush and Obama administrations added additional groups and circumstances to the exemptions.

"PHANTOM PROBLEM"

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has granted nearly 22,000 TRIG exemptions in total over the last decade, according to the latest data available, which goes through September 2016. The State Department also grants TRIG exemptions, but a spokesman could not provide data on how many.

Refugees from Myanmar are the largest single group of beneficiaries to date of TRIG exemptions granted by USCIS, with more than 6,700 waivers.

The wave of Myanmar refugees dates to 2006, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ruled that thousands of members of the Karen ethnic group, then living in a camp in Thailand, could resettle in the United States, even if they had supported the political wing of an armed group that had fought the country's military regime.

One high-profile supporter of scrapping the waivers is House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia whose staffers were instrumental in drafting Trump's travel ban. Goodlatte told Reuters he was "pleased that the Trump Administration is reviewing the dangerous policy."

Groups favoring stricter immigration laws have also applauded the review. Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, called the waivers "a potential security risk."

"I personally don't think that a bureaucrat should be deciding how much support for terrorism is enough to be barred," she said.

A USCIS spokeswoman, when asked if a recipient of an exemption had ever been involved in a terrorism-related case after arriving in the United States, referred Reuters to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which said it was a question for the State Department to answer. "I don't know of any cases where beneficiaries of exemptions have gotten into trouble after arriving," the State Department official said, noting that the department does not typically track people after they arrive in the United States.

Trump's order to review the waivers "is another example of an attempt to address a non-existent phantom problem," said Eric Schwartz, who served in the State Department during the Obama administration.

Schwartz and immigration advocates say the waivers are granted after lengthy review and are extremely difficult to get.

"These are case-by-case exemptions for people who represent no threat to the United States but rather have been caught in the most unfortunate of circumstances," said Schwartz.

For Raj, the initial ruling that his ransom payment supported a terrorist group led to more than two years in U.S. immigration detention, followed by more years of electronic monitoring. His waiver allowed him to bring his wife to the United States after nine years apart. She now studies nursing.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Additional reporting by Julia Edwards in Washington and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.

From Our Partners

Nature Gets Revenge On Safari Hunter Who Killed Elephants And Lions For Sport Nature Gets Revenge On Safari Hunter Who Killed Elephants And Lions For Sport
12 Facts That Will Make You Smarter Than Your Friends 12 Facts That Will Make You Smarter Than Your Friends
Man Is Horrified To Learn His Biological Father's Identity - But A Look In The Mirror Man Is Horrified To Learn His Biological Father's Identity - But A Look In The Mirror