WASHINGTON – Today's foreign terrorists could become tomorrow's U.S. refugees if the Bush administration gets its way.
The intent is to grant refugee status to rebels who have fought repressive governments or advanced U.S. foreign policy objectives, particularly in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America.
To some lawmakers, the revisions under consideration by the administration are too broad and potentially dangerous.
Officials say the changes are meant to reverse the unintended consequences of post-Sept. 11 restrictions that have kept thousands of otherwise eligible people from a haven in the United States.
The administration wants the authority to waive those restrictions so it has as much flexibility as possible in deciding who can and cannot enter the country.
Under current law, virtually all armed nongovernmental groups are classified as terrorist organizations and the U.S. is prohibited from accepting their members and combatants as refugees.
There is limited ability to grant waivers to supporters of those groups who can prove they were forced to provide assistance. But more than 10,000 people have been barred. That includes many from Burma, Laos and Vietnam, including some of whom fought alongside U.S. forces in Vietnam.
Last year, the government planned to accept 56,000 refugees; the actual number was 12,000 less, primarily due to the restrictions.
In addition, about 5,000 people already in the United States as refugees have been blocked from seeking U.S. citizenship because of the rules. Some 600 people asking for political asylum have had their cases put on hold.
"This has had a devastating impact on the admission of refugees and asylum seekers," said Jennifer Daskal, U.S. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, which supports the proposed changes.
Amendments to the Immigration and Naturalization Act would permit the government to waive the rules for active members and fighters of terrorist groups on a case-by-case basis.
They would cover any foreigner who has engaged in terrorist activity, said Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman.
"This amendment thus provides the executive branch with the authority to admit aliens who have engaged in armed action against oppressive regimes or in furtherance of U.S. foreign policy or both," he said.
Lawmakers, however, are skeptical of the need for such expansive changes.
"The provision in this bill would extend the waiver authority in current law to groups that are definitely not friends of the United States," said Republican Sen. John Kyl, who is leading an effort to revise the amendment.
"I do not think that there is a single member of this body who believes that any member of al-Qaida, Hamas or Hezbollah should ever be considered for admission to this country," he said.
Acting on behalf of a bipartisan group, Kyl in late March blocked the amendment from appearing in the Iraq war spending bill that President George W. Bush vetoed on Tuesday.
Kyl's office is working on wording that would cut out what he called the bill's "excesses."
A new version, giving the executive more limited waiver authority, could be ready as early as this week, according to aides.
The State Department and advocacy groups see no reason for concern, saying that members of Al Qaeda, Hamas or Hezbollah never would benefit.
"It is hard to envision what would be the compelling reason to even consider exercising this authority on behalf a member of one of those terrorist organizations," Gallegos said.
"The fear of this opening the floodgates to Al Qaeda and Taliban members is completely ridiculous," she said.
The real problem, she said, is the scope of the post-Sept. 11 rules that have kept out legitimate refugees whom the U.S. normally would have accepted.
Among those whom the changes are intended to help are members of Burmese rebel groups such as the Karen National Union and Chin National Front; hill tribes in Vietnam and Laos; the now-defunct, anti-Castro Cuban Alzado insurgency; Ethiopia's Oromo Liberation Front; and southern Sudan's ex-rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
Without the broad language covering all terrorist groups, supporters of the changes fear that former child soldiers, who may have been forced to fight, never would become eligible for admission to the U.S. Nor would medics or nurses who treated terrorists.
Some believe that members of terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, who were coerced into violence should not automatically be denied entry.
"We feel strongly that some of these people take these actions under duress," said Dawn Calabia of Refugees International.
"It is a legitimate concern that you don't want to aid and abet terrorists, but on the other hand, some of these people being barred are not terrorists," she said.