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The Immigrant Rights Project

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Newsletter Highlights

Special Issue on Immigration Challenges Facing Fleeing Iraqis

U.S. Denies Permanent Status

A U.S. immigration policy – which grants refugee or political asylum to groups that sought to topple foreign dictatorships, but then denies them green cards – has recently generated national controversy. The policy denies these refugees and legal immigrants green cards because they are linked to groups defined as “undesignated terrorist organizations,” a broad term that includes any group that took armed action against a foreign government. The USA Patriot Act and Real ID Act contain an even broader definition of the term, covering “groups that are opposed to any government.” As applied, these groups include U.S. allies that fought against Saddam Hussein and the Taliban government, as well as Burma’s military junta and Sudan’s Islamic leaders. Jonathan Scharfen, deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, admitted the illogic of admitting immigrants under refugee or political asylum status and then labeling them terrorists for green card purposes, calling it a “very good question.” Appeals of green card denials are made to the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, not USCIS, which has been sharply criticized by immigration groups and many in Congress.

On Wednesday, USCIS announced that it will stop denying green cards and determine more “logical, common-sense rules” for judging the applicants. The catalyst for this decision was a recent Washington Post article about a translator for U.S. forces in Iraq who, after his life was threatened in Iraq, arrived in the U.S. under a special visa program for those assisting the war effort. Despite commendations from General Petraeus and other military officers, his application for permanent residence was denied last month because he once served with the Kurdistan Democratic Party forces that fought against Hussein. The USCIS denial letter said that the KDP forces fit the definition of “terrorist” because – based on information it had gathered from public websites – they had “conducted full-scale armed attacks and helped incite rebellions against Hussein's regime, most notably during the Iran-Iraq war, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.” A U.S. ally, the KDP is now part of the elected Iraqi government. The translator teaches Arabic language and culture at military bases and facilities, working with Marines who are about to deploy to Iraq. The USCIS letter stated that the denial could not be appealed. However, since the Washington Post article was published, the case is now “under review” and should be resolved “in a matter of days.”

DHS and the State Department will now identify groups that may be eligible for exemption. According to Scharfen, “We’ve recognized there are issues that need to be addressed in a logical, common-sense fashion so that we can apply the exemptions that the law provides…There are lots of groups around the world…it could be a cumbersome process….[but] all of us have this as a priority.”

Sweden Closes Its Doors

The UN Refugee Agency estimates that approximately 2.5 million people are displaced within Iraq, while another 2 million have fled to neighboring Arab countries. Only about 1% have sought asylum in industrialized countries, with Sweden being the most favored Western destination.

To date, Sweden has granted refuge to approximately 100,000 Iraqis, 40,000 of them since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. That far exceeds any other Western country – the U.S. admitted just over 1,600 Iraqis in the 2007 fiscal year, nearly 400 short of the annual goal of 2,000 and a large reduction from an initial target of 7,000. However, the Swedish government sees the surge of newcomers as uncontrollable and has appealed in vain to other EU states to share the burden. “We find it totally unacceptable that some countries do a lot while others do very little,” said Migration Minister Tobias Billstrom.

Concerned that its generous welfare system can’t cope, Sweden has recently tightened its asylum rules. Only 25% of the claims were approved in January and 23% in February, down from 85% in January, 2007. The turning point occurred last July when the Migration Board, citing decisions by Sweden’s highest immigration court, said the situation in Iraq could not be described as an armed conflict. As a result, asylum-seekers must now demonstrate that they have fled specific threats of violence; general unrest is no longer sufficient.