(CNSNews.com) - Recent changes to immigration laws have expanded the definition of terrorists and their supporters, but some critics say the move has unnecessarily excluded groups legitimately seeking asylum in the United States.
The provisions of the REAL ID Act and the Patriot Act have affected a large number of people who would otherwise be welcomed into the U.S., Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kelly Ryan said at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
Ryan serves in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
"I think it made sense for Congress to ramp up the protections that we had at that time because they rightly -- and I think, prudently -- determined that our laxity in our immigration laws had been used against us in 9/11," Brian Walsh, a senior legal research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, said during a discussion hosted by the organization.
At the same time, Walsh said, the "broadened definitions of what it means to be a terrorist organization and what it means to provide material support to a terrorist organization" have led to many being barred for providing "material support" -- even if it was done under duress.
Ryan said groups that are currently barred for providing material support to terrorists include Vietnamese Hmong and Montagnards, who supported the U.S. during the Vietnam War; Cubans who joined anti-Castro movements supported by the U.S.; Burmese religious and ethnic minorities persecuted by that country's ruling military junta; Colombians forced to pay ransoms or war tax to narco-terrorist groups; and African women who have been raped by rebels and forced to provide them with housing.
"These are some of the most deserving cases," said Ryan, noting that the new laws have "really stymied" efforts to resettle such refugees.
The laws do allow for waivers on a case-by-case basis, but the secretaries of state and homeland security must agree on the waiver, along with the attorney general.
"This [process] has taken longer than many expected or would have wanted it to," said Walsh.
The departments of state and homeland security have asked Congress to change the definitions of terrorists and those providing material support, specifically to exclude those who have "engaged in armed action against oppressive regimes or in furtherance of U.S. foreign policy or both."
"We are seeking a legislative change," said Ryan. "It would in essence give back to the executive the discretion it had in the past."
But some remain cautious about expanding the provisions.
"Any actions we take with regard to the admission of refugees must not conflict with or undermine our counter-terrorism strategy -- by admitting persons who pose a security threat to this country, by complicating positions the government takes in litigation or by sending inconsistent messages to the world about our policy toward acts of terror," Rachel Brand of the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice testified before the House Committee on International Relations in May 2006.
"Just as we have a proactive counter-terrorism strategy, the existing legislative scheme for admissions is, and historically has been, preventive -- that is, designed to prevent undesirable aliens from entering the United States," she said.
"Thus, in addition to prosecuting those who commit acts of terrorism or plan terrorist attacks, the department prosecutes those who provide material support to terrorists," Brand explained to the committee, which has since changed its name to the Committee on Foreign Affairs..
"We know from experience that terrorists need an infrastructure to operate. They need to raise funds, maintain bank accounts and transfer money, communicate with each other, obtain travel documents, train personnel and procure equipment," she said.
"The people who perform these functions may not commit terrorist acts themselves, but the front-line terrorists could not operate without them."
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