WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is changing the rules for refugees and asylum seekers in the United States so that people will no longer be barred entry for providing incidental or unintentional support to terrorist organizations.
The new definition of what it means to provide "material support" to terrorists comes after years of complaints from human rights advocates that the old rules led to the exclusion of vulnerable refugees who pose no harm.
Among those turned away in recent months were a Syrian refugee who paid an opposition group to gain safe passage out of Syria and a farmer who paid tolls to a resistance group to cross a bridge to take his food to market, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The new rules exempt people with no tangible connection to terrorism who nevertheless provided material support, as long as it was insignificant in amount or rendered incidentally in the course of everyday interactions or under significant pressure. The exemptions were published Wednesday in the Federal Register.
Laws passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks barred admission of those who provided support to terrorists, and critics said the laws were so broadly applied that they led to the unfair exclusion of tens of thousands of refugees.
"It resulted in deserving refugees and asylees being barred from the United States for actions so tangential and minimal that no rational person would consider them supporters of terrorist activities," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "These changes help return our nation to its historic role as a welcoming sanctuary to the world's most vulnerable populations."
The U.S. granted asylum to almost 12,000 people in 2012, out of 44,000 who sought it, according to Justice Department statistics.
As about 2.4 million refugees of the conflict in Syria have made their way to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, human rights groups are pushing the U.S. to resettle at least 15,000 people a year.
"Several of the scenarios covered by these exemptions should not have been treated as 'terrorist activity' in the first place," said Anwen Hughes, an asylum expert at the advocacy group Human Rights First. "We welcome these announcements for the practical relief they will provide to many refugees, but regret that the administration has not taken this opportunity to adopt a more sensible interpretation of the underlying statute, which is being applied to bar thousands of refugees from protection in the United States."