Eritrea real clear politics's Weblog

May 11, 2009

U.S. allies seek refuge, face rejection

Filed under: News — eritrearealclearpolitics @ 7:08 pm

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Published: Sunday, May. 3, 2009 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

WASHINGTON – Forced to flee his homeland because of his support of America’s ideals, Tsegu Bahta thought he’d be embraced by the country he emulated and respected.

Instead, the United States branded him a terrorist.

The former rebel commander and top official in Eritrea once provided the United States with intelligence about Osama bin Laden and advocated the adoption of an American-style constitution for his fledgling African nation. He now works as a Washington parking lot attendant, biding his time until the U.S. government decides whether to deport him.

Bahta is among at least 6,000 immigrants who’ve tried to find refuge in the United States only to be told that they don’t qualify because the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 laws label members of armed groups terrorists, even if they supported pro-democracy efforts and opposed despots and dictators. Others who gave money to terrorists under threat of death are considered terrorist sympathizers.

As a result, a wide range of immigrants, from Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government despite death threats to child soldiers who fled their African countries so they’d no longer be forced to kill, are trapped in legal limbo.

The cases help fuel a growing perception internationally that the United States, which still accepts more refugees than any other nation, has become much less welcoming – even to those who champion democratic ideals.

“It’s like ‘Alice in Wonderland’: Everything is upside down,” said Bereket Selassie, Bahta’s U.S. citizen uncle who’s a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “These are people who have fought for freedom and democracy and who were recognized by the American government for their efforts. Now, they’re terrorists? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Some immigrants have been told they can’t receive asylum status and could be deported.

Others received asylum before the government began relying on the broader interpretation of post-9/11 anti-terrorism laws. Now, they can’t get permanent residency or green cards. Without green cards, their dreams of becoming U.S. citizens go unfulfilled.

Some can’t get jobs because of the stigma. Although their lawyers try to reassure them otherwise, they live in fear that the United States will take their asylum status away and send them home.

Many of them feel betrayed, especially since the trauma and persecution they experienced in the native lands are now being held against them.

An Iraqi Kurd, who was granted asylum and applied for a green card in 2004, continues to wait in vain despite his work as an interpreter for the U.S. military for almost three years. The reason: His relatives supported the U.S.-backed Kurdish Democratic Party that had tried to topple Saddam Hussein.

The interpreter, who asked that his identity be withheld out of fear for his relatives, is especially bitter because he says he helped U.S. military forces break up terrorist organizations in Iraq and detect plots to bomb U.S. facilities. His attorney, Thomas Ragland, showed immigration officers proof of his client’s work for the U.S. military, but to no avail.

Without a green card, he’s unable to bring his elderly mother and father to the United States.

“Do you know what they do to the relatives of interpreters in Iraq?” the interpreter asked. “They behead them.”

Department of Homeland Security officials acknowledge that many of the immigrants deserve asylum or green cards but say they’re restrained by the law.

In Bahta’s case, officials point to his work as a government official freeing opponents of the brutal regime of Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was later convicted of genocide. Many of those prisoners later joined armed groups that helped topple the dictatorship – an effort the United States backed at the time but now says could count as terrorist activity.

After the civil war ended in 1991, Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia. As a top Eritrean official, Bahta pressured the new leadership to endorse a new constitution and hold democratic elections.

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