Mistaken as Terrorists: How innocent Syrian refugees are prevented from resettling in the US

The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the most horrific this generation has ever seen.

Syrian refugees living in a camp Credits: © Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian refugees living in a camp Credits: © Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images

The United States, which has a long history of welcoming refugees into its borders and giving protection to those fleeing from persecution, has yet to put a significant resettlement initiative for Syrian refugees into motion. The United States has resettled 546 Syrian refugees since the crisis began.  UNHCR, on the other hand, hopes to resettle 50,000 Syrian refugees in 2015, and another 50,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 in permanent resettlement placements around the world.  The lack of action on the part of the United States is due, in part, to its strict immigration laws in regards to terrorism.  The Terrorism Related Inadmissibility Grounds (“TRIG”) sweep broadly over many individuals who are not dangerous in any way.  The TRIG statutory language, codified in the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) prevents many innocent Syrians from finding a stable and safe living situation.

There are two areas of the INA that stand as a significant obstacle for many Syrian refugees wanting to resettle in the United States. First is the definition of “terrorist activity,” defined in INA §212(a)(3)(B)(iii) as “any activity that is unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed.” Because the law defines any military action against a regime as “terrorist activity,” individuals who were once seen as friends of the Untied States are now labeled as terrorists. For Syrians, opposition fighters are labeled as terrorists and are excluded from entering the United States, even though the United States government supports them. In contrast, those who were in Assad’s army, which the United States opposes for its violations of international law, would still be admissible, because the statute only applies to non-state actors.

Second, many Syrians may be found inadmissible due to their insignificant material support to a Tier I or Tier II terrorist organization (designated terrorist organizations by the Secretary of State and Attorney General, respectively). In INA §212(a)(3)(B)(iv)(VI), the giving of material support to a terrorist organization labeled as “terrorist activity.”  DHS, in past oral arguments before the BIA, has stated that they would consider even the most minimal support given to a terrorist organization, like a glass of water or five cents, as material support.  Syrians deemed inadmissible due to their material support of a terrorist organization include a family that sheltered an opposition fighter in their home when their town was being bombed, a young boy who joined the opposition fighters for a short time when his father was killed, eventually leaving the war to join his mother and siblings, and even the man who sold falafel sandwiches to opposition fighters in a war-zone.

In order for the United States to continue its longstanding tradition of welcoming people fleeing from persecution, the TRIG laws need to be changed.  DHS needs to use its discretionary authority and expand the available TRIG waivers. Civilians living in Syria were subject to innocent contact with Tier I and Tier II terrorist organizations on a regular basis; this is the nature of living in a conflict zone.  The armed group that took control over the territory they lived in became their customers in their stores—innocent, insignificant material support is unavoidable.  Additionally, exceptions should be given on a case-by-case basis to former combatants who pass a security background check and are not barred for any other statutory reason, including those who were children at the time they were combatants, or to individuals who did not participate in targeting civilians.

Kitty Robinson is a 2L at the University of Denver and is the incoming Candidacy Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy  

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