Jesús is a 22-year-old Colombian who was forced from his home by the decades-old civil war. He and others in his village were captured by the paramilitaries in 2005. They were massed into a forced death march. At gunpoint, they were made to dig graves for the dead. Jesús said, I never knew when I would be digging my own grave, because often the paramilitaries shot the gravedigger and pushed him into the hole he had just finished digging. Along the way, Jesús was able to escape, and he fled for his life into neighboring Ecuador. International law protects people like Jesús, fleeing for their lives from political persecution in their home countries. But current U.S. law does not. Under the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and the REAL ID Act of 2005, Jesús’ forced grave-digging at gunpoint is classified as giving material support to terrorist groups. Instead of being recognized as victims of terrorists, Jesús and other refugees like him are falsely branded as terrorist sympathizers and stripped of the protections due them by U.S. and international refugee law.
In 1939, German Jews fleeing extermination at the hands of the Nazis were turned away from many countries. Ships of refugees, like the S.S. St. Louis, were banned from the United States and other countries; the Coast Guard even fired at them to turn them away from the U.S. coastline. Most of those passengers on the Voyage of the Damned, as it was called, were forced back to the Nazis and died in the Holocaust. Shame over the experience drove postwar promises of Never again. The 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees protects those who are outside their country of origin and unable to return to it because of a well-founded fear of persecution. Eleanor Roosevelt led these postwar human rights reforms. The United States is one of 134 countries that are bound by this law to accept refugees and not forcibly return them. For years the United States has been a leader in refugee resettlement, admitting 2.6 million refugees since 1975 and encouraging other countries to follow our example of promising to admit 70,000 refugees into the country each year.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, we have been breaking our promises to refugees. None of the Sept. 11 hijackers were refugees, and none had entered the United States through refugee resettlement programs. But in the general antiforeigner political climate that has followed the terrorist attacks, refugees are harmed.
The Bush administration notes that it is committed to continuing to allow the full number of 70,000 a year into the country. But Congress has not fully funded the admissions; and, wary of political fallout, U.S. bureaucrats have slowed the admission, cutting the number allowed into the United States drastically since 9/11. Since 1980, the United States has admitted on average 98,000 refugees a year. In the first two years after the attacks, fewer than 30,000 were allowed into the United States. Last year only 41,269 refugees were admitted, far short of the 70,000 promised.
The Patriot Act’s ban on material-support adds further insult to injury. Victims who were raped, tortured, robbed, kidnaped or extorted and those who have had family members harmed or killed by terrorist groups are denied asylum and refugee status and are banned from the United States for giving material support to terrorist groups. In a cruel irony, the very information refugees themselves provide to show their refugee status is used against them to bar their entry.
The Bush administration has recently asked for waivers and exemptions from this law for a few small groups. But none of these proposed waivers would help Jesús, or any of the Colombians hurt by the material-support ban. Limited exemptions cannot fix a bad law. The law itself is the problem and must be changed. A few courageous Congressmen are proposing legislation to repeal the material-support bar. Congressman Joseph Pitt, Republican of Pennsylvania, in the House of Representatives is sponsoring legislation. Senators Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, are pursuing action in the Senate, but they face an uphill battle. Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, recently struck down a Senate effort to extend waiver abilities under existing legislation, erroneously saying this could allow members of Al Qaeda into the United States. David Carle of Senator Leahy’s office challenged Kyl’s reasoning. The likelihood of the secretary of state, secretary of homeland security and the attorney general unanimously deciding to apply the waiver to a member of Al Qaeda is laughable, and the chances of it happening are less than zero, Carle said. Representatives Christopher Smith, Republican of New Jersey, John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, and the other members of the Bipartisan Refugee Caucus need more legislators to join the caucus and work toward a comprehensive solution.
May 22, 2007, is Refugee Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill. Churches and nongovernmental organizations will go to Capitol Hill and constituents will write letters calling for action to help refugees. The victims of political violence need our help. We in the United States must keep our promises to them. We ought to lead the world on issues of refugee rights and resettlement. Two thousand years ago, Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees, fleeing into Egypt to escape Herod’s attempts to kill the child Jesus. Today as Christians we are called to speak for these modern holy families, who seek protection from violence yet who have no voice in the political processno voice but ours.