WASHINGTON (September 20, 2007) – In congressional testimony September 19, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) urged members of Congress to correct the unintended consequences of recent changes in immigration law language relating to the issue of "material support."
Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Florida, a consultant to the USCCB Committee on Migration and chairman of the Bishop's Committee on International Policy, told the Human Rights and Law Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee that language contained in the USA PATRIOT Act and the REAL ID Act have expanded the Immigration and Nationality Act in ways that have had unintended, negative impacts on bona fide refugee and asylum seekers.
These provisions, known as the "material support" bar, deny U.S. entry to an individual who provides material support to a terrorist organization, broadly defined in immigration law, even under duress. Under the definition, pro-democracy resistance movements that pose no threat to the United States would qualify as a terrorist organization.
Bishop Wenski presented particular case examples of vulnerable refugees who have been unable to enter the United States due to overzealous interpretations of the material support clause by the Department of Homeland Security. The testimony included, among others, the case of a Somali woman that was raped and attacked by an insurgent group, had her husband and daughter killed in front of her and later decided to pay ransom to have her kidnapped son released; a Sierra Leonean man who was forced to fix rebels' cars to protect his family; and a Colombian youth who was forced to dig graves by a paramilitary group.
"Congress must direct this Administration, as well as future ones, with clear and unambiguous language regarding the material support bar. Such language should include a removal of the bar if an individual provides support to a terrorist group under duress," Bishop Wenski said. "Duress" includes the threat of death.
The Bishops applaud Congress's role in protecting the U.S. public from outside threats, including terrorist attacks, but "we can rescue bona fide refugees from persecution without inhibiting our ability to prevent terrorist attacks," Bishop Wenski said.
The Bishops urged a revision of the definitions on "terrorist activity" and "terrorist organization" contained in the PATRIOT ACT and the REAL ID ACT OF 2005. While the U.S. Department of State maintains a list of designated terrorist organizations, this expanded definition could extend terrorist activity to any groups that use armed force, including groups seeking to overthrow brutal regimes and dictatorships.
"Congress should revise these definitions to exclude groups that are no threat to the United States and do not meet the criteria for designation as foreign terrorist organizations," Bishop Wenski said.
"The issue of material support has seriously undermined the effectiveness of the U.S. refugee protection regime in offering safe haven to persons who flee terror and persecution in our world," said Bishop Wenski. "We need not shrink from our responsibilities to the world refugees in order to obtain security for the American public. Indeed refugees and asylum-seekers share a similar experience with our country as victims of terror."
Through Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) the Catholic Church is the largest resettler of refugees in the United States. It provides assistance to 15,000-20,000 refugees each year with services that range from housing to job placement and other forms of assistance to ensure their early self-sufficiency.
The full text of Bishop Wenski testimony is available at: