Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge rolled out Operation Liberty Shield this week, which includes as a provision the detention of asylum seekers who hail from the 30-odd countries the administration regards as likely sources of terrorists.
In doing so, Ridge acknowledged what most honest immigration lawyers know to be true: The facts asserted as the basis of most asylum claims are dubious.
It is tacit in Ridge's decision that people in general and immigration judges in particular tend naturally to feel sympathy, perhaps too much sympathy, for people who come here seeking freedom from persecution. Most people who come to the U.S. with an asylum claim come from repressive regimes. The question now is, do they come fleeing those regimes or at their behest?
"Persecutors" are ineligible for a grant of asylum, even if their life would be in danger if returned to their home country. But that does not prevent some of the world's most dangerous people from being granted asylum. In 2000, Lebanon granted asylum to Kozo Okomoto, a member of the Japanese Red Army who staged a 1972 attack on an Israeli airport that killed 24 people.
In 1991, Haitian Generals Raoul Cedrás and Philippe Biamby led a coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Most estimates are that thousands were tortured or killed during their dictatorship. When President Aristide was restored, the two fled to Panama, where they were granted asylum.
As appalling as it may seem, even the United States has granted asylum to the worst kinds of people. Before Kelbessa Negewo was granted asylum and began working at a Georgia hotel, he was an accomplished torturer for the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam that existed in Ethiopia between 1974 and 1991. Jose Guillermo Garcia was El Salvador's minister of defense from 1979 to 1983, and according to Robert White, former ambassador to El Salvador, Garcia knew his underlings regularly engaged in the torture and murder of civilians and did nothing about it. Garcia was granted asylum in the late 1980s.
And though he has no legal immigration status, Emmanuel Constant, right-hand man to Cedras and Biamby, resides in New York City with the consent of the State Department.
Most asylum claims are born of war and civil strife. And it is frequently difficult for an immigration judge to accurately gauge the country conditions against which many asylum claims are made. Many asylum applicants understand this, and are able to convincingly shift roles from the persecutor to the persecuted. The conflicts in Rwanda and Zaire are recent examples.
If the Pentagon's statements about the first 48 hours of the Iraq conflict are true, then chaos will reign inside Iraq. The men who participate in Saddam's apparatus of control -- those who carry out a low-grade, ongoing campaign of rape, torture and murder against the population -- are likely to find themselves in the crosshairs of not only our military, but of the Iraqi populace.
Like East Germany's Stasi after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it's possible that members of Saddam's security service will be hunted down, tortured and murdered by the citizens they have repressed for so many decades. Many may have prima facie asylum claims. So it is a relief to know our own intelligence services have a very good idea of the identities of every one of them.
It is difficult to know if Ridge's effort is motivated by a desire to net Iraq's torturers as they enter the U.S. with the flood of refugees that is sure to come. Or is it a belated recognition that asylum, more than any other immigration benefit, is so highly susceptible to fraud that it has become a method for terrorists to enter the U.S.?
Reuters news agency recently estimated that 50,000 refugees will flee Iraq before hostilities have concluded, and Iraq is on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terror. It's likely many of them will be members of Saddam's regime, and that many of that number will try to make their way to the U.S. We can hope Ridge is aware of our country's mistakes in allowing the torturers of Central America and Haiti into the U.S., and that they will not be repeated with the torturers of Iraq.