The United States has loosened the strict immigration standards designed to prevent allies of terrorist groups from entering the country but have instead to date blocked all but a handful of Syrian refugees from seeking refuge in America from the civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of their compatriots.
Under the new rule, listed in the Federal Register on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson determine that certain portions of the Immigration and Nationality Act “bar certain aliens who do not pose a national security or public safety risk from admission to the United States and from obtaining immigration benefits or other status.” Now, with the publication of this rule, those standards “shall not apply with respect to an alien who provided insignificant material support” to armed groups — in particular, the rebel forces the United States is supporting in Syria.
The change relates to what are known as “Terrorism-related Inadmissibility Grounds” (TRIG), which act as a dragnet to prevent not just members of terrorist groups but those who provide them with material support from entry into the United States. Under the system, the bar is set high for proof from those applying for entry to gain a TRIG exemption. Now, a DHS spokeswoman told Politico, “material support that was insignificant in amount or provided incidentally in the course of everyday social, commercial, family or humanitarian interactions, or under significant pressure” will not be enough to deny an applicant a TRIG exemption.
Last month, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) expressed his displeasure over how these guidelines have kept hundreds of Syrian refugees from seeking the United States’ shelter, allowing only 36 newly admitted applicants last fiscal year. “One issue that needs to be addressed is the overly broad prohibition in our immigration law that excludes any refugee who has provided any kind of support to an army rebel group, even a group we in the United States support,” Durbin lamented at the time. “This would prevent a Syrian who gave a cigarette or sandwich to a Free Syrian Army soldier from receiving refugee status in the United States despite the fact that the United States is providing assistance to the Free Syrian Army.”
The new rules change will theoretically prevent such an event from occurring in the future, a fact that Durbin is praising. “These exemptions will help address the plight of Syrian refugees who are caught up in the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation,” Durbin said in a statement. “The United States has led the world in resettling and providing humanitarian assistance to refugees from conflicts around the globe and today’s announcement will help remove a significant barrier to innocents seeking refuge in the U.S.
At present, according to DHS, there are approximately 1,300 Syrians who have applied for asylum in the U.S. Only a few hundred are currently in the country, as the application process is lengthy even to bring over the families of those who were lucky enough to already have a U.S. visa and asylum status. “We take refugees after they’ve been referred by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and so that process did not start at once but instead started after a period of time,” Acting Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Mollie Groom said at last month’s hearing to explain the delays. “And now our own process takes a little while. It’s very deliberate and careful, it’s designed to be that way to make sure that we only take bona fide refugees. So we are working very quickly now to respond to referrals from UNHCR and to start that process of bringing in refugees.”
While advocates have pressed for this sort of rule change for some time, not all of them are completely satisfied. In issuing their statement praising the shift, advocacy group Human Rights First said that the TRIG rules themselves need to be rewritten. “At the same time, several of the scenarios covered by these exemptions should not have been treated as ‘terrorist activity’ in the first place,” their statement reads. “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.”
According to the latest statistics from the United Nations, there are currently 2.4 million Syrians who have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Of those 1.3 million are under the age of 18. More than nine million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid, per USAID, with six million of them displaced from their homes but still within Syria’s borders.