The Obama administration has unilaterally eased restrictions on asylum seekers with loose or incidental ties to terror and insurgent groups, in a move one senator called "deeply alarming."
The change, approved by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Secretary of State John Kerry, was announced Wednesday in the Federal Register. It would allow some individuals who provided "limited material support" to terror groups to be considered for entry into the U.S.
Supporters of the change, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., argued that the current ban on anyone who has ever aided terrorists has unfairly blocked thousands of refugees.
"The existing interpretation was so broad as to be unworkable," Leahy said in a statement. "It resulted in deserving refugees and asylees being barred from the United States for actions so tangential and minimal that no rational person would consider them supporters of terrorist activities."
But critics say despite the good intentions, the change raises security concerns, particularly after a report published Thursday on asylum fraud.
"In light of these and other facts, it is thus deeply alarming that the Obama administration would move unilaterally to relax admissions standards for asylum seekers and potentially numerous other applicants for admission who have possible connections to insurgent or terrorist groups," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in a statement on Thursday. "We need to tighten security standards for asylum, not relax them even further."
Sessions also complained that the administration was, on its own, altering the Immigration and Nationality Act. "What is the point of Congress passing a law if the administration abuses its 'discretion' to say that law simply no longer applies?" he said.
The change would apply to people the U.S. government does not consider a threat but could nevertheless be tied to terror groups, and therefore barred from entry. A Department of Homeland Security official said these individuals have been "adversely affected by the broad terrorism bars of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)."
The official offered several examples of how the change might help otherwise innocent refugees -- including a restaurant owner who served food to an opposition group; a farmer who paid a toll to such a group in order to cross a bridge or sell his food; or a Syrian refugee who paid an opposition group to get out of the country.
"These exemptions cover discrete kinds of limited material support that have adversely affected refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants and other travelers: material support to non-designated terrorist organizations that was insignificant in amount, provided incidentally in the course of everyday social, commercial, or humanitarian interactions, or provided under significant pressure," the official said.
The official said the change would let the administration apply the exemptions on a "case-by-case basis" after a review that already includes rigorous security screening. "Our screening procedures check applicants' names and fingerprints against a broad array of records of individuals known to be security threats, including the terrorist watch list, and those of law enforcement concern," the official said.
Though the change would apply to those who helped non-designated terror groups, Sessions noted that Al Qaeda, for example, was not officially designated as a foreign terror organization until 1999.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, claimed the change was another effort to maximize the number of people being allowed into the country.
"This administration no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt in making these kinds of rule changes," he said. "The consequences are potentially dire for ... public safety."
The Washington Times also reported Thursday that a 2009 fraud assessment found at least 70 percent of asylum applications had signs of fraud.