WASHINGTON — Almost every day for three years, prison guards at one of Saddam Hussein's most notorious prisons tortured Sami Alkarim.
Now, in a cruel twist of fate, the accomplished Iraqi artist is being treated like a terrorist by the U.S., the country where he sought refuge.
U.S. officials have told him they can't give him permanent residency in Denver because of messenger work he did as a teenager for the same political party that counts the current prime minister of Iraq as a member.
Alkarim's problems have their roots in post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism laws that the Obama and Bush administrations vowed to fix.
Despite that pledge, the number of people who've been told their requests for refugee status, asylum or green cards won't be processed because of the laws has risen from 5,304 in December to 7,286 in June.
The broad language of the Patriot Act and other laws bars refugees and asylum seekers from living and working in the U.S. if they supported or were members of an armed group in their homelands. They're considered terrorists or supporters of terrorists even if they opposed dictators or helped the U.S. government.
Although Congress has attempted to give the executive branch the power to grant waivers in such cases, the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has yet to set up an efficient way to handle them, refugee advocates say.
"As far as I can tell, the situation has only grown worse," said Thomas Ragland, a former Justice Department lawyer attorney who now represents several immigrants affected by the laws. Ragland's clients include an Iraqi, an Ethiopian, a Nepali, and a Burmese.
Department of Homeland Security officials in charge of reviewing the matter declined a request for an interview.
Matthew Chandler, a DHS spokesman, said the department has granted more than 10,500 waivers to people impacted by the laws, proof that the cases aren't being ignored.
"While the department views this achievement as significant, we also understand that a more efficient authorization process than the one that has been in place would reach even more people," he said.
DHS is working with other agencies, such as the State Department, to come up with a solution that also would weigh U.S. security interests, he said.
Immigrants and their lawyers, however, remain mystified by the government's inability to cut through the red tape to eliminate such problems. Many of the waivers were given to Burmese refugees, while other worthy refugees and asylum seekers are overlooked, advocates said.
"I can't tell how much of this madness is policy and how much of it is just madness," said Anwen Hughes, the senior counsel for Human Rights First's Refugee Protection Program.
Previously, immigrants who were denied a green card after being given asylum were told they wouldn't be deported. Officials said their cases would eventually be resolved.
However, the DHS began recently sending some immigrants letters informing them that the agency intends to revoke their asylum. As a result, they'd be deported.
The cases include immigrants who were granted asylum after fleeing Zimbabwe as members of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opponent of autocrat Robert Mugabe. In June, President Obama met with the leader of the party, Morgan Tsvangirai, and praised him for his courage.
Some of the most startling stories involve Iraqis — some of whom have worked for the U.S. government under threat of death and now could have even more to fear as U.S. troops are redeployed.
In one recent case, a middle-aged Iraqi mother of two teenagers was deemed a terrorist and barred refuge in the U.S. despite her work for the State Department as an economic development adviser.
Anna, as she is known by her American colleagues, is seen as a supporter of terrorism because of her work for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a mainstream Iraqi political party that the current president of Iraq belongs to. She's no longer active in the party.
Anonymous callers have warned her that they'd take revenge for her work for the U.S. government.
Now, she wonders in a phone call from Iraq punctuated by sirens and static, "What will be my future?"
Army Lt. Col. Dennis Chapman, who worked with her when he was the chief of a military transition team in the Kurdish region of Iraq, said he doesn't understand why the U.S. government would reject someone who's proved to be an ally in need of help.
"It's an absurd finding," he said. "It deprives the word 'terrorism' of any meaning."
Anna, who's being helped by the international law firm Holland & Knight, is appealing the decision. As part of a nonprofit effort, the law firm has helped more than 300 Iraqis affiliated with the U.S. government.
Alkarim, who fled as a refugee to the U.S. in February 2001, can't work or travel, even though his wife and children have already become U.S. citizens.
In 2007, Alkarim sued the U.S. government in an effort to get his green card application moving. Although the Obama administration tried to get the lawsuit dismissed, a federal judge in Denver has allowed it to proceed and could rule soon.
Alkarim's lawyer, Jeff Joseph, agreed to take the case free. Justice Department attorneys, however, have told him if DHS is ordered by the judge to act, they'll likely deny Alkarim's request for permanent residency. The government lawyers suggested that his client might have better luck if he simply dropped the suit.
Recently, Alkarim's artwork was selected to be shown at Italy's Biennial of Florence, which bills itself as one of the largest exhibition of contemporary art in the world.
His abstract expressionist paintings were considered subversive by Saddam Hussein's regime — one of the reasons he was imprisoned.
His artwork will be displayed in December without him, however, because he doesn't have his green card. He said he's also had to turn down invitations to galleries in Switzerland, Dubai, France and London.
"It would be an honor to represent the United States," the 43-year-old said. "But I can't say I'm American."
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