After 9/11, Congress passed legislation like the USA Patriot Act and security practices were tightened. But in the rush to protect Americans from al-Qaeda, little thought was given to the effect of these laws on other important priorities.

The USA Patriot Act of 2001 and the REAL ID Act of 2005 expanded the definition of terrorism -- a good move in theory but problematic in practice. For example, the use of “any weapon or dangerous device”  to cause injury or property damage for any reason other than personal monetary gain is “terrorist activity,” and any group of two or more people who engage in this activity is a “terrorist group.” The Department of Homeland Security adopted a particularly strict interpretation of the law that led the United States to label as “terrorists” people who had fled persecution or suffered at the hands of actual terrorists. Examples included Burmese Christians who had fought against the Myanmar military, Colombians taken hostage by armed groups and forced to help them under duress, and even Cubans who had fought Castro.

In response to objections, the Bush Administration decided to deal with the problem by granting exemptions from the law on a group-by-group basis.  The process has proven cumbersome, time-consuming, and often ineffective.  Not only has this approach impaired the U.S. refugee program by separating families and placing bona fide refugees under a cloud of suspicion, it has also crippled the ability of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable persons.

At the same time, conditions under which relief agencies can work in war zones have grown tougher as the U.S  places further limitations and requirements on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia for fear that humanitarian organizations like mine will hire terrorists or aid will be diverted to the terrorists. 

Now plans are underway to require aid agencies to collect detailed information on American and foreign staff members and forward it to the State Department or U.S. Agency for International Development. Some of our staff’s personal information is supposed to be shared with the Pentagon for entry into a mammoth database. Humanitarian agencies continue to protest, yet few inside the U.S. government back compromises. No one wants to be seen as soft on terrorism.

And what of the overly broad definitions of terrorism? As incredible as this sounds, under current law UNHCR staff believes they would not be able to refer for resettlement in the U.S. any of the Libyan rebels and the U.S. Government would not be able to grant asylum to those who apply on their own, because they would have committed “terrorist acts” against the Qadaffi government. 

And any non-citizens who work for humanitarian agencies – such as my colleagues on our emergency response team from Ireland, Australia, France, and Canada– could be barred from entering or returning to the U.S. for providing “material support” to a “terrorist group.” Even U.S. citizens could face prosecution on these grounds.

As I write this, relief workers are at the borders of Libya, hoping to help anyone fleeing the violence. It is shocking to think that they would face legal threats for this work. Libyan families, meanwhile, are undoubtedly concerned for their own safety and that of their relatives. Of all the things they have to fear, being accused of helping terrorists should be the last thing on their minds.

Anne C. Richard is a vice president of the International Rescue Committee,