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Last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would exempt certain people who have already been granted asylum or other protection-based relief and subsequently sought additional benefits like permanent residency or family petitions from far-reaching laws that retrospectively label them as terrorists. It may seem strange that DHS would determine that people already given protection are suddenly ineligible for further benefits because of a “terrorism” connection, even when the facts of their cases have not changed, but it’s just another one of the sad but true results of post-9/11 terrorism legislation.

The new DHS policy means that thousands of asylees and refugees who have waited in limbo for the government to address one of the most illogical aspects of the so-called “terrorism bar” will finally be able to reunite with family and move forward with their lives in the United States. But the broad language of the terrorism bar and DHS’s interpretation of the bar continue to prevent many legitimate asylum seekers and refugees from obtaining protection in our country.

I must make one point clear: The government has always been able to bar people from entry or benefits in the United States if they were involved in terrorist activity or a terrorist organization. The government has long maintained a list of specific groups whose affiliation could bar a person from the United States. However, after 9/11, Congress expanded the definition of “terrorist activity” and “terrorist organization” to such an extent that the government can now decide that any group of two or more individuals constitutes a “terrorist organization,” basing that determination on something as simple as evidence that a member of the group used a weapon in violation of the law. As a former member of the Board of Immigration Appeals noted, under the new definition, even Iraqi nationals who assisted the U.S. Marines prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein could potentially be deemed to have provided support to a “terrorist organization.”

As a result of these post-9/11 definitions, the very characteristics that made many asylum seekers targets for persecution in their native countries – involvement in political parties opposing dictatorships or membership in minority ethnic groups – are the characteristics the U.S. government now cites to bar them from protection in the United States. This is problematic on its own, but almost worse, thousands of people who were previously granted asylum and refugee status without any problem suddenly faced a terrorism bar when they petitioned to bring their family to the United States or applied for a green card.

NIJC represented an Ethiopian man who was persecuted in retaliation for his participation in a political opposition coalition. He fled to the United States, leaving his wife and children behind in hiding while they waited for him to obtain asylum. DHS granted him asylum, but when he petitioned for his wife and children to join him in the United States, DHS decided that he was subject to the terrorism bar because an unknown member of the Ethiopian opposition coalition may have been involved in violent activity. DHS barred the man’s spouse and children from entering the United States. The stigma associated with the word “terrorism” is significant and when asylees and refugees like our client learn that the government believes they were involved in terrorism, they often feel horror and shame. Their confusion is immense. As our client asked, “Why did they approve my asylum if they think I am a terrorist?”

Fortunately, NIJC successfully argued that DHS had incorrectly found our client subject to the terrorism bar and DHS allowed his family to enter the United States. But, thousands of other asylees and refugees have not been so lucky. Their cases and the cases of their family members have been on hold for years. Through the new DHS exemption, many of their cases should now be resolved.

Still, many asylees and refugees face unjust separation from family members and delays in establishing permanent residence in the United States—or risk having their request for protection denied entirely—as a result of the overbroad terrorism bar. One of these individuals is an Ethiopian woman whom NIJC pro bono attorneys represent in her asylum case. She raised money for poor and abused women as part of a women’s group within the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an ethnic-based political group that opposes the repressive Ethiopian regime and has had the support of the U.S. government. Our client seeks asylum because the Ethiopian government tortured her for her involvement with the OLF, but DHS claims she provided support to a terrorist organization and should be barred from asylum. Another NIJC client from Uganda faces the terrorism bar for the actions she took after being kidnapped and severely abused by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Until Congress corrects the wording of the terrorism bar statute, DHS must establish more exemptions and interpret the statute in a reasonable manner so that men, women, and children who seek safety in the United States and present no threat to our security are not returned to countries where they will be subjected to persecution and torture.

Ashley Huebner is a supervising attorney for the Asylum Project.

Photo courtesy of DonkerDink via Flickr/Creative Commons