US is arming Syrian rebels, but refugees who’ve aided them are considered terrorists

The designation could make it harder for Syrian refugees to come to the US, even if they haven't actually taken up arms against the regime

Authorized by Congress, the CIA has started sending weapons to Syrian rebels. But under a legal definition of terrorism adopted by the U.S. government after the Sept. 11 attacks, those same rebel groups are considered terrorist organizations.

The designation could prevent some of the more than 2 million refugees who have fled Syria from coming to the United States, even if they haven’t actually taken up arms against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Groups that appear on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations have long been banned from entering the U.S. But two antiterrorism laws, the Patriot Act and the Real ID Act, also bar members of armed rebel groups that aren’t specifically designated as terrorist organizations.

The provisions, sometimes known as terrorism bars, apply to all armed rebel groups — even ones the U.S. is actively supporting.

The bars also deny entry to anyone who has given any kind of “material support” — transportation, shelter, money — to such groups.

The U.S. has accepted only 64 Syrian refugees in the last two years, according to a State Department spokeswoman. But it’s unclear how many, if any, Syrians have run afoul of the terrorism bars to date.

Few Syrians have been resettled overall since the conflict began there in 2011. Instead, the United Nations — which refers refugees for resettlement — has focused on aiding the refugees who are still flowing out of Syria into Lebanon, Turkey and other bordering countries.

But the U.N. is preparing to resettle up to 2,000 Syrians in the coming months, said Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington, and the terrorism bars could be a hurdle to resettling them in the U.S.

“We do foresee that there could be issues with some of these cases,” Yungk said.

David Garfield, a Washington lawyer who has represented immigrants caught up by the terrorism bars, was more blunt.

“For Syrians, I think it’s going to be a major problem,” Garfield said. “The thing about this law that’s so bizarre is that it doesn’t matter who you’re trying to overthrow.”

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman, Christopher Bentley, said in a statement to ProPublica that “any Syrians who do apply for refugee or asylum status could be subject” to the bars.

The Citizenship and Immigration website makes clear just how sweeping the laws are: “Significantly, there is no exception under the law for ‘freedom fighters,’ so most rebel groups would be considered to be engaging in terrorist activity even if fighting against an authoritarian regime.” The website also states that refugees can be barred for “providing food, helping to set up tents, distributing literature, or making a small monetary contribution” to rebel groups.

“Material support” is defined so broadly that immigrants can be turned away for giving members of rebel groups “a bowl of rice or a few dollars,” said Melanie Nezer, senior director for policy and advocacy with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

More than 3,500 applications from those around the world seeking to come to or remain in the U.S. are currently on hold because of the terrorism bars, according to the government. And that likely doesn’t capture the full effect of the bars. The U.N. often doesn’t try to resettle refugees in the U.S. if officials think they might be turned away because of the terrorism bars.

In 2007, Congress gave the secretary of homeland security more authority to grant exemptions to rebel groups that don’t pose a threat to the U.S. But putting the exemptions in place has proved to be a slow process that often takes years.

A proposed exemption “has to circulate through the whole alphabet soup of agencies in Washington,” said Thomas K. Ragland, a former Justice Department lawyer who has represented immigrants caught up by the terrorism bars.

Exemptions typically must be reviewed by, among others, the Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security’s general counsel and Office of Policy. If no objections are raised, exemptions eventually get sent to the secretary of homeland security, who must consult the secretary of state and the attorney general before they’re made official. “It moves at a glacial pace,” Ragland said.

Eighteen groups have received exemptions to date, including seven Burmese groups, three Iraqi groups and two Vietnamese groups. The Department of Homeland Security has also issued several broader exemptions, including for individuals who supported rebel groups “under duress.”

Citizenship and Immigration would not say whether any exemptions for Syrian groups were in the pipeline.

Granting exemptions for certain Syrian groups wouldn’t mean that refugees affiliated with them could automatically enter the U.S. — it would simply remove the legal barrier to letting Syrians who have aided the rebels into the country.

The government reviews the case of each refugee, and it would still have the authority to reject applicants with ties to groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a rebel group with ties to Al Qaeda. (The State Department has already designated the Al Nusra Front, another group with Qaeda ties, as a terrorist organization, preventing anyone affiliated with it from entering the country.)

The government can also exempt individuals from the terrorism bars.

In 2008, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on Saman Kareem Ahmad, a client of Ragland’s who had worked as a translator for the Marines in Iraq but had been turned down when he applied for U.S. permanent residency. The reason: He had served in the militant arm of the Kurdish Democratic Party, which was considered a terrorist group because it had tried to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Ahmad was granted an individual exemption after the story ran, Ragland said. (Homeland Security later issued a group exemption for refugees affiliated with the Kurdish Democratic Party.) But Ragland said such exemptions are rare.

“They’re really, really the exception to the rule,” Ragland said. Citizenship and Immigration declined to say how many individual exemptions have been granted.

The Department of Homeland Security could issue a general exemption for all Syrians who provided nonviolent support to Syrian rebels, said Anwen Hughes, the deputy director of the refugee protection program at Human Rights First.

“There’s an opportunity right now for DHS to fix this and process an exemption that would resolve it,” she said, “before it becomes a crisis.”




Hamlet and His Will

To register or not to register that is a question

Moneylife has been conducting sessions on how to draft a Will. The three sessions were not only well attended but the interactions were simply wonderful. If truth be told, we learnt more from the sessions than maybe some of the attendees did!

One point cropped up at all the sessions. Should a Will be registered or not? To reinforce our thinking, we did some research and are pleased to learn that our observations and conclusions were correct. Those who attended the sessions will remember our discussions and those who did not will learn something new.

You be the judge.

A person executes a Will. It is complete in all respects. Executors are named with addresses, age and occupation. The beneficiaries are properly identified and the assets clearly defined. The Will is attested by two witnesses with their proper names, addresses, etc. In short, there are no shortcomings. It is a perfect document.

The Will is registered with the sub-registrar of assurances or whatever the local authority is. It is then deposited. However, it must be mentioned here that the law does not make it mandatory for a Will to be registered.

So far so good. The legatees, if in the know of the contents of the Will, sleep well.

Comes a day when the testator, the person who had executed the Will, decides that the ‘perfect Will’ needs a change. There are two options available. One is to execute a codicil, that is, an amendment to the original Will. The other is to go in for a completely new Will. In either case, the original Will is now no longer pristine.

The question that haunts everybody is now upon us. Should the codicil or the new Will be also registered?

Before reading further, what do you think should be the answer?
You be the judge, if the new Will or the codicil is NOT registered. Which Will takes precedence? The first or the second?

Fortunately, the courts have taken a decision on this issue; in a case decided by the Madras High Court, in 1996. The answer is: The second unregistered one, if carefully executed with witnesses, executors, assets and beneficiaries well-defined. It matters not if the second Will is not registered. The codicil, or the second Will, is the testator’s LAST wish and must take precedence over all other testamentary documents.

Why? One may ask. For one, registration is not compulsory. And what is not mandated by law is optional. Registration is, therefore, no more than a panacea. It is simply not necessary. It affords a safe deposit place for the Will, nothing else. It confers no further legal sanctity, no stamp of non-violation.

Secondly, one must consider the reasons why the registration of a Will is not compulsory.
Those in cities have access to certain facilities; others do not. A Will may be executed on a weekend when it may be impossible to get to the registrar. The executor may not be in a condition to visit the place of registration, for whatever reason. Some may want to keep the Will a secret and simply ask their lawyer to keep it in safe custody. After all, not even the witnesses are supposed to read the Will, only sign.

So, if someone asks you to ‘Register’ a Will, ask the question: ‘Why?’ It could save you a lot of money and hassles. But if you do register it, do not worry. No harm will come to you. You will be way, way gone.

And, if you have left a second unregistered testamentary document behind, even a one line codicil, you can watch the legal Mahabharata from far above!

(Editor’s note: Like the Aadhaar, the registration of Wills is being mandated through the backdoor. Some municipal corporations are allegedly insisting on registration. Some registrar & transfer agents also give preference to registered Wills. If you have questions on these issues, they are subjects for further discussion at the forthcoming workshops of Moneylife Foundation. Watch out for announcement of the dates.)

Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected] or [email protected]


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