Let’s say you own a grocery store in Mosul, Iraq. Your town is conquered by the Islamic State, and an IS fighter comes to your store, grabs your teenage daughter, puts a gun to her head, and threatens to rape and kill her unless you give him a glass of water. You pour a glass of water, hand it to your daughter, and she gives it to the fighter. Now, lets say that you, your daughter, and the IS fighter get to the United States and request asylum. Question: Who is barred from receiving asylum? (a) The IS fighter; (b) You; (c) Your daughter; (d) All of the above.
If you guessed “d”, you win. By giving a glass of water to the IS fighter, you and your daughter have provided “material support” to a terrorist, and you are both barred from receiving asylum in the United States. Even though you gave the glass of water under duress to save your child’s life. And even though it was only one glass of water (what we lawyers call “de minimis“). How can this be?
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress greatly expanded pre-existing law in order to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of our immigration system. These laws include the rules relating to “material support,” which one jurist has called “breathtaking in… scope,” see Matter of S-K-, 23 I&N Dec. 936 (BIA 2006) (Acting Vice Chairman Osuna, concurring). The opinion continues:
Any group that has used a weapon for any purpose other than for personal monetary gain can, under this statute, be labeled a terrorist organization. This includes organizations that the United States Government has not thought of as terrorist organizations because their activities coincide with our foreign policy objectives
Id. And anyone who provides any type of support to these “terrorists” is subject to the material support bar.
The problem is that under these rules, lots of people meet the definition of a terrorist or a person who provided material support to a terrorist. And it’s not just people like the shop owners from Mosul. Under our existing law, George Washington would be considered a terrorist. He led an armed rebellion against Great Britain. Ditto for the other founding fathers. Betsy Ross gave material support by sewing a flag for the rebels. There are more modern examples, of course. How about Nobel-prize winning author and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, who was interned in a Nazi slave labor camp where he provided—you guessed it—material support to the Germans. And how about John McCain, who gave material support to the North Vietnamese by participating in a propaganda video (after being tortured while a prisoner of war). Indeed, even Luke Skywalker would be considered a terrorist under the current rules since he participated in armed resistance against the Empire.
Maybe the picture I am painting is a bit too bleak. While there is no statutory exception for the material support bar, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security have the authority to waive certain Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds (“TRIG”). In that vein, DHS has issued group-based exemptions that allow people involved with certain “terrorist” groups to obtain status in the U.S. It is also possible to receive an individual exemption through a Byzantine (and sometimes infinite) process. If your application is being held because of TRIG, you can inquire about your case status at TRIGQuery@uscis.dhs.gov.
One government entity that does not have the authority to grant a TRIG exemption is the Department of Justice (“DOJ”). This is significant because the Immigration Courts are part of the DOJ. Thus, Immigration Judges cannot grant asylum cases where the alien is subject to TRIG, even when the alien provided material support under duress. In a depressing, but not particularly surprising decision last week, the Board of Immigration Appeals confirmed that there is no implied duress exception to the material support bar:
[A]bsent a waiver [from the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Homeland Security], an alien who affords material support to a terrorist organization is inadmissible and statutorily barred from establishing eligibility for asylum and for withholding of removal under the Act and the Convention Against Torture, even if such support was provided under duress.
Matter of M-H-Z-, 26 I&N Dec. 757 (BIA 2016). The problem is that an alien can only get an exemption after he is ordered removed from the United States, and even then, there is no particular procedure to follow to request an exemption. It seems the best an alien (or his attorney) can do is to contact the DHS/ICE Office of the Chief Counsel and request consideration for an exemption. An exemption is only available if asylum would have been granted but for the TRIG issue. In other words, the alien needs to show that if it wasn’t for the TRIG problem, the Immigration Judge would have granted him asylum (helpful hint to lawyers: If your client is barred from asylum solely due to TRIG, try to get the Judge to state that explicitly in her decision; this will help when applying to DHS for an exemption). If the Secretary of Homeland Security grants the exemption, the alien then needs to re-open his court case in order to receive asylum. Legend has it that DHS does sometimes grant exemptions, so it certainly is worth a try, but my guess is that this is a slooooow process.
Blocking terrorists and their supporters from the U.S. is obviously an important goal–it protects our country and it protects our immigration and asylum system. However, the material support bar is much too broad. It fails to distinguish between terrorists and their victims. Worse, it treats victims as if they were terrorists. The recent ruling from the BIA underlines this sad fact. It also illustrates why the law needs to be changed. As we continue to work for immigration reform, I hope we will keep in mind those who have been victimized by terrorists and victimized a second time by our overly-broad anti-terrorism law.