WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has eased the rules for would-be asylum-seekers, refugees and others who hope to come to the United States or stay here and who gave “limited” support to terrorists or terrorist groups.
The change is one of President Obama’s first actions on immigration since he pledged during his State of the Union address last month to use more executive directives.
The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department now say that people considered to have provided “limited material support” to terrorists or terrorist groups are no longer automatically barred from the United States.
A post-Sept. 11 provision in immigrant law, known as terrorism related inadmissibility grounds, had affected anyone considered to have given support.
With little exception, the provision has been applied rigidly to those trying to enter the U.S. and those already here but wanting to change their immigration status.
For Morteza Assadi, a 49-year-old real estate agent in northern Virginia, the law has left him in a sort of immigration purgatory while his green card application has been on hold for more than a decade.
As a teenager in Tehran, Iran, in the early 1980s, Assadi distributed fliers for a mujahedeen group that opposed the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and was at one time considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
Assadi said he told the U.S. government about his activities when he and his wife applied for asylum in the late 1990s. Those requests were later granted and his wife has since become a U.S. citizen.
But Assadi’s case has remained stalled.
“When we are teenagers, we have different mindsets,” Assadi said. “I thought, I’m doing my country a favor.”
Assadi said he only briefly associated with the group, which was removed from Washington’s list of terrorist organizations in 2012, and that he was never an active member or contributor to its activities.
Now he’s hopeful that the U.S. government will look at his teenage activities as “limited.”
His lawyer, Parastoo Zahedi, said she has filed case in federal court to force U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process Assadi’s green card application, but now hopes the government will act on its own.
“In the past, the minute your name was associated with a (terrorist) organization you were being punished,” Zahedi said. “Not every act is a terrorist act and you can’t just lump everyone together.”
The Homeland Security Department said in a statement that the rule change, which was announced last week and not made in concert with Congress, gives the government more discretion, but won’t open the country to terrorists or their sympathizers.
People seeking refugee status, asylum and visas, including those already in the United States, still will be checked to make sure they don’t pose a threat to national security or public safety, the department said.
“Refugee applicants are subject to more security checks than any other category of traveler to the United States,” Homeland Security spokesman Peter Boogaard said.
“Nothing in these exemptions changes the rigorous, multilayered security screening we do,” Boogard added.