When “Material” Loses Meaning: Matter of A-C-M- and the Material Support Bar to Asylum

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Tyler Anne Lee is a member of the Columbia Law School Class of 2020.

The United States asylum system offers the possibility of a safe haven to many individuals who have fled persecution in their home countries. Yet, often the complex system of immigration statutes and its multiple grounds for inadmissibility block the path of deserving asylum seekers. Under one of these grounds for exclusion, the “material support bar,” victims of terrorism are barred from asylum because they have provided “material support” to the very groups whose persecution they have escaped.

In 2018, the Board of Immigration Appeals issued a precedential decision in Matter of A-C-M-, holding that a woman forced to cook and clean for Salvadoran guerrillas under threat of death was ineligible for asylum in the United States because her actions constituted material support to a terrorist organization. This decision represents the culmination of a series of cases since the statute’s enactment that have broadened the definition of “material support.” This Note argues that the current interpretation of the material support bar is both untenable from a statutory interpretation perspective and unjust in light of asylum law’s purposes, and that the present system of discretionary waivers is inadequate to mitigate this problem.

In order to ensure that deserving victims of persecution remain eligible for asylum in the United States, this Note recommends that Congress and the courts take action. It proposes and evaluates several potential solutions: first, a legislative amendment to the relevant statute to add an explicit duress waiver and to clarify the meaning of “material support,” and second, judicial review of the Matter of A‑C‑M‑ decision.

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