Once a foe of Saddam, Iraqi cab driver now branded a terrorist
The ground war was about to begin.
It was Feb. 15, 1991, and U.S. troops were poised at Iraq's southern border. Offering "another way for the bloodshed to stop," then-President George H.W. Bush took to the Voice of America airwaves, calling on Iraqis to "take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside."
Kassim Alshamsawi was among those who heeded the call.
And for that, the United States now considers him a terrorist.
Alshamsawi wants to become a U.S. citizen, but the Salt Lake City taxi driver is in immigration limbo created by a 2005 law that designates anyone who has taken up arms against a government as a member of a "terrorist organization." That makes applicants ineligible to become permanent residents of the United States and subject to deportation.
Alshamsawi acknowledges that he carried a firearm during the uprising, though he stresses that he never fired the gun or even pointed it at anyone.
"We all thought Saddam was going to be gone," Alshamsawi said. "We were trying to help the people get organized, providing some security."
The "party," as Alshamsawi calls it, lasted for 35 days.
"Then Saddam's army came," he said.
Alshamsawi fled. He spent six years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia before the U.S. approved his request for placement in 1997. At the time, he believed that his participation in the uprising helped his case for asylum.
As a refugee, he's eligible to stay in the U.S. indefinitely. But Alshamsawi's desire to make his relationship with the U.S. official has complicated his plight.
In the half-decade since the law's passing, U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services [USCIS] officials appear to have maintained a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to enforcing the rule regarding those who've opposed past U.S. enemies. Refugees only trigger the law's consequences if they actively seek a change in their immigration status, as Alshamsawi has.
The broadly written REAL ID Act has ensnared other immigrant groups in the past. Shortly after the law was written, Hmong men who had been persuaded by the U.S. to fight in Laos during the Vietnam War complained that it labeled them as terrorists. Three years later, Congress passed an amendment that specifically excluded Hmong liberation group members from the act's provisions.
But no such exemption has been written for those who participated in the post-Gulf War uprisings against Saddam. Instead, federal immigration officials say they must process applications from Iraqis and other refugees one by one. Since 2006, 13,400 such exemptions have been processed, said USCIS spokesman Timothy Counts.
But at least 4,000 requests, apparently including Alshamsawi's, are pending review. And Counts said he doesn't know how long it will take to process those claims.
Alshamsawi who filed his application to become a permanent resident years before the 2005 law was written feels he has been waiting long enough. He has asked U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups in Salt Lake City to force immigration officials to rule on his petition immediately.
Reasoning that a further delay in processing his application is in his best interest, however, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Immigration Litigation and the U.S. Attorney's Office have asked the judge not to force the issue. If Alshamsawi forges ahead, they have argued, immigration officials will have just one option under the law: They must deport him.
"It's so absurd," says Philip Smith, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C., who worked to convince Congress to issue the exemption for Hmong refugees in 2008. "It lacks common sense, but, you know, that's Washington."
Alshamsawi said he's tired of waiting in limbo.
"I'm not a terrorist," he said. "I'm 41 years old. I want to find a wife and support a family, and right now, I cannot do those things."
That's because refugees are limited in how much they can travel and where they can work, and they are barred from bringing spouses and other family members into the country.
Smith believes the U.S. government needs to devote more resources to America's porous border security and immigration system, instead of enforcing broadly written rules that have little chance of stopping actual terrorists and only catch those who are honest about their past.
"It's a terrible injustice," he said. "Some of these refugees should not just be given citizenship, they should get a medal."
All Alshamsawi wants, though, is a chance to live as any other American. And so he's pressing on even if it means risking deportation.
"It is a game of chicken," said Salt Lake City immigration attorney Shawn Foster. "There are potentially dire consequences, and he knows that."
Foster also represents another Iraqi refugee, Hameed Almayali, whose application for permanent residence appears to have been blocked under similar circumstances.
"My clients are angry and frustrated," Foster said. "At the very least, they want their day in court ... to prove that they are not terrorists."
More than 20,000 refugees live in Utah, nearly half of whom have arrived since 2000. All refugees are legal immigrants.