Iraqi artist who opposed Saddam now fights 'terrorist' label

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 30, 2010 

Sami Alkarim stands next to his artwork at the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art. Alkarim, a former Iraqi political prisoner, is among a growing number of refugees who have been barred from getting permanent residency in the United States because of a broad interpretation of post-Sept. 11 laws. Alkarim, who was tortured almost every day for three years in a prison run by Saddam Hussein, can't get his green card because of work he did as a teen-ager for the same political party that counts the current prime minister of Iraq as a member. (MCT)

MCT

WASHINGTON — A federal judge is forcing the Department of Homeland Security to process the permanent-residency request of an Iraqi artist despite the U.S. government's claims that he could be considered a terrorist under post-Sept. 11 laws.

The ruling in favor of Sami Alkarim, a refugee whom McClatchy profiled earlier, is expected to prompt others to file similar suits.

About 7,000 refugees are trapped in legal limbo because immigration authorities have branded them terrorists even though many of them opposed dictators, helped the U.S. government in countries such as Afghanistan or, in Alkarim's case, were tortured in one of Saddam Hussein's most notorious prisons.

That's because the Obama administration has interpreted the Patriot Act and other laws to mean that refugees and asylum seekers are barred from living and working in the U.S. if they supported or were members of armed groups in their homelands.

U.S. officials told Alkarim 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 prime minister of Iraq as a member. As a result, immigration authorities put his case on hold indefinitely.

Alkarim, who fled to the U.S. as a refugee in February 2001, can't work or travel, even though his wife and children already have become American citizens. He said he'd had to turn down invitations to attend exhibits of his art in Italy, Switzerland, Dubai, France and London. Saddam's regime considered his abstract expressionist paintings subversive, one of the reasons he was imprisoned.

In a ruling issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn of Colorado said the government no longer could make Alkarim wait, and he ordered the Homeland Security Department to process Alkarim's green-card request within 30 days.

Blackburn said he wasn't persuaded by Justice Department attorneys' claims that if they were forced to act, they'd probably deny Alkarim's request for permanent residency because of the murkiness of the laws. The government lawyers also had suggested that Alkarim might have better luck if he dropped the suit, because they might sort out the problems sometime in the future.

Blackburn said the government's argument "puts me in mind of Abraham Lincoln's aphorism: 'Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.'"

He added that "the legal limbo in which plaintiff daily finds himself has caused him great stress and anxiety."

Jeff Joseph, Alkarim's Aurora, Colo., lawyer, said he feared that the government now would deny Alkarim's green card and possibly revoke his refugee status.

Even so, Alkarim, who has four school-age children, is determined to keep fighting for his green card no matter what the outcome.

"I believe in justice and I believe in America. That's why I brought my family here," he said. "I still have hope."

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.

Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said he couldn't comment on the ruling but that the U.S. had issued more than 12,000 waivers.

"While the department views this achievement as significant, we also understand that a more efficient exemption authorization process than the one that has been in place would reach even more people," he said.

Chandler said his department was working on ways to process more applications.

Thomas Ragland, an attorney who's represented several refugees, said the ruling might prompt other lawyers and him to file suit. "Everyone is getting more and more impatient," he said.

Even if the department grants more waivers, some immigrants may be forced to wait longer.

One of Ragland's clients, an Iraqi Kurd who worked as an American military interpreter for almost three years before he came to the U.S., was told that he couldn't get a green card processed because his relatives supported the U.S.-backed Kurdistan Democratic Party, which had tried to topple Saddam. In November, however, the Homeland Security Department decided to grant former members of the party a waiver.

The interpreter, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his relatives, is still awaiting final word. Meanwhile, he's had to put off accepting work with the U.S. military in Iraq.

Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Carl Levin of Michigan recently proposed legislation that they say will help fix the problem. The proposal is part of a larger package that's likely to be difficult to pass, however, because of the contentiousness of the overall immigration debate.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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