A Man Named Lincoln, Who Wants to Be an American

By Anna Husarska, senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee (THE WASHINGTON POST, 22/04/06):

For the past nine years, this ravine 100 miles west of Bangkok has been “home” to 9,325 ethnic Karens from Burma. All of the huts here are made entirely of bamboo, which gives it a sort of Pier 1 Imports look. It is, however, not for aesthetic but for political reasons that bamboo is used. Anything else would be a “permanent home,” and the Thai government insists that Tham Hin, a remote, overcrowded camp near the Burmese border, be only a very temporary shelter.

These refugees fled their own land in 1997 when the military junta in Rangoon launched an offensive, killing Karen civilians and independence fighters, and burning their houses. Now the refugees are waiting to get out of this camp. They cannot go back to Burma, nor are they allowed to integrate in Thailand, so the only solution for them is to resettle in a third country.

Late last year the United States decided that the entire population of Tham Hin would be considered for resettlement. There was joy and hope when the news was officially announced. Upon getting the green light from the State Department, staffers from the International Rescue Committee started pre-screening the refugees for the Department of Homeland Security so it would have an easier task when it came to establish that there was “well-founded fear of persecution” and would approve the candidates.

This pre-screening consists of gathering in one file a refugee’s data and story. Take this older man, who was reading the Bangkok Post of a few days ago when I came up to him. Dressed in the traditional Burmese sarong skirt, he was gentle and soft-spoken but very articulate in stating his opinions.

Name: Lincoln. Age: 84. Ethnicity: Karen. Religion: Baptist (typical among Karens). Place of birth: Burma, under British colonial rule. Last place of residence: Tavoy division (until then, under control of the Karen National Union, KNU). Date he left his hometown: February 1997. Profession until he fled: secondary school teacher in the KNU educational system.

Oops! At this point you could almost hear the bubble of Lincoln’s dream burst. With this innocent-sounding answer — “teacher for KNU” — he is forfeiting his chances for a smooth admission to the United States as a refugee. This is so because, under the current U.S. immigration and national security laws, a teacher in KNU territory is a person who offers “material support” to a “terrorist group,” or more troubling, could even be viewed as a member of a terrorist group. Indeed, the broad definition puts in the same bag those who carry out a legitimate struggle against a repressive regime and those who are terrorists as more narrowly (and more accurately) defined in the U.S. Code: people who engage in “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.”

So Lincoln — whose parents admired the American president so much that they named their first child after him, and who is an avid participant in classes of cultural orientation about the American way of life — has his case put on hold because of that material support clause and may never set foot in the United States.

Other Karens from Tham Hin camp see their fates sealed when they say things such as, “I once gave food to KNU soldiers in my tea shop,” “I helped in sewing uniforms,” “I ferried KNU across the river,” “My father supported KNU.”

If the sample of less than a hundred interviews from the beginning of 2006 is any indication, 68 percent of the candidates could be put on hold for reasons of material support. The United States had planned to admit 9,000 Burmese refugees by September of this year. But as of the end of March it had taken just 727.

Why did the State Department offer to screen candidates for resettlement who are exiled from an area with constant fighting (56 years and counting)? The administration could have waived the application of that law for material support under duress or for certain groups of refugees. It has not done so, in spite of a barrage of newspaper editorials attacking the law. Waivers would have given some margin of maneuver to resettlement agencies such as ours and to some refugees, too. Yet, given the fear of being the one who “waives” the first terrorist in, it might be more of a burden because officials would shy away from any waiver that could be tracked back to them.

Congress should amend the definition of terrorism to make it applicable to bona fide terrorists and not applicable to those who until just recently were considered freedom fighters.

If nothing is done, Lincoln may never see his grandnephews who run a sushi bar in Miami. He himself would prefer to settle in Texas: “less stormy,” he says. He has the first $200 to start a carryout restaurant. “We must all be out of Tham Hin by September,” he says. “Our children need to start the new school year in America.”