Apr 21 (Reuters) When Raj, a Sri Lankan fisherman, sought refuge in the United States in 2005, he had precisely the kind of fear of returning home that U.S. asylum laws require.
In 2004, he was kidnapped by the separatist rebel group the Tamil Tigers and had to pay $500 to secure his release, according to Raj, his lawyer and court records reviewed by Reuters. The group then demanded more money, which he could not pay after a tsunami destroyed his house and fishing boat.
Raj, 42, who asked that only his first name be used because of the sensitive nature of his situation, decided to flee. He boarded a plane using a false Canadian passport and requested asylum upon arriving in the United States.
There was a catch, however. U.S. laws ban immigration by anyone who has provided "material support" to terrorists, and the Tamil Tigers are designated as a terrorist group by the United States. A judge ruled that Raj's ransom payment to them constituted material support. (Read an excerpt of the letter petitioning the U.S. government for a waiver in this case: tmsnrt.rs/2oPsqQM)
Ultimately, Raj was granted asylum in 2011 because of rules that allow for waivers for people who provided aid to terrorists under duress. He now lives in San Diego, California, works in an Indian restaurant and hopes to become a citizen. (Read an excerpt of the letter from the U.S. government granting the waiver: tmsnrt.rs/2oPy7yx)
Raj said it was "a big relief" when he finally received his green card around a year after receiving asylum. "I am not a terrorist," he said.
Now the Trump administration is debating whether to rescind the waivers that have allowed Raj, and tens of thousands of others, to immigrate to the United States in the past decade (See graphic on waivers: tmsnrt.rs/2oPssIo). Some immigration hardliners are concerned the exemptions could allow terrorists to slip into the country.
U.S. President Donald Trump directed the secretaries of State and Homeland Security, in consultation with the attorney general, to consider abolishing the waivers in an executive order in March. That directive was overshadowed by the same order's temporary ban on all refugees and on travelers from six mostly Muslim nations.
The bans on refugees and travel were challenged in lawsuits, and their implementation has been suspended pending full hearings in court. But the waiver review was not included in the court rulings, so that part of the order remains in effect.
Rules governing the waivers have been hammered out over the last decade with both Democratic and Republican support. But in recent years they have drawn fire from some conservative lawmakers, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he was a senator.
A State Department official said this week the department is working with DHS to review the waivers and is "looking at actually pulling them back in accordance with the executive order."