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Woman's forced labor for Salvadoran guerrillas means she must leave US, court rules

She was kidnapped by Salvadoran guerrillas three decades ago, watched her husband be killed and forced to cook and clean for the militants. Now she can't stay in the US.

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Tal Kopan (CNN)
(CNN) — She was kidnapped by Salvadoran guerrillas three decades ago, watched her husband be killed and forced to cook and clean for the militants. Now she can't stay in the US.

The main appellate body of the immigration courts issued a divided opinion Wednesday with broad implications, finding that a woman from El Salvador is ineligible for status in the US because her 1990 abduction and forced labor amount to "material support" of a terrorist organization.

According to the court documents, the woman was kidnapped by the guerrillas in El Salvador and made to do the cooking and cleaning "under threat of death." She was also "forced to witness her husband, a sergeant in the Salvadoran Army, dig his own grave before being killed."

Nevertheless, the 2-1 opinion holds that the woman's coerced duties for the group constituted "material support" for a terrorist organization, and thus made her ineligible to be granted asylum or have her deportation order canceled in the US -- though a lower court judge had ruled she would otherwise be eligible for such relief. The woman first came to the US illegally in 1991 but gained Temporary Protected Status -- which is granted to countries that suffer natural disasters and other mass problems and was afforded to El Salvador for decades.

But she left the US and tried to return in 2004, when the government began deportation proceedings against her. Wednesday's decision is the product of years of litigation regarding her case in the immigration courts -- a judicial body for immigration-related claims run by the Justice Department.

Writing for the majority, Board of Immigration Appeals Judge Roger Pauley ruled that "material support" can be virtually anything that is provided to a terrorist organization that supports their overall mission that they would otherwise would need to seek somewhere else.

"In fact, no court has held that the kind of support an alien provides, if related to promoting the goals of a terrorist organization, is exempt from the material support bar, and we discern no basis to import such a limitation," Pauley wrote.

Pauley also concluded there was no exception for support given "under duress" under US law and the actions do not need to be "voluntary."

Dissenting board member and Judge Linda Wendtland blasted the court's interpretation, pointing out the relevant statute lists a number of examples of "material support" like offering safe houses, transportation, funds and other tangible furtherance of their mission.

"I cannot conclude that the menial and incidental tasks that the respondent performed -- as a slave -- for Salvadoran guerrillas, including cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes, are of 'the same class' as the enumerated forms of assistance set forth in the statute," Wendtland wrote. "Under the majority's strained interpretation, providing a glass of water to a thirsty individual who happened to belong to a terrorist organization would constitute material support of that organization, because the individual otherwise would have needed to obtain water from another source."

For the decision to be overturned, the woman in the case would have to appeal to a federal circuit court or succeed in persuading Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- who serves as a functional one-man Supreme Court of the immigration courts -- to intervene.

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