Last week, the Obama administration confronted the overly broad definitions of “terrorist activity” and “terrorist group” in the USA Patriot Act which were the result of allowing our fears to overtake our better sense, codified into law.  

It is incumbent on the government to do everything it can to keep our country safe. But our current policies toward people who have fled persecution and seek protection in the United States are so all-encompassing that they punish the very people we have traditionally prided ourselves on helping.


When Congress enacted the Patriot Act, it included provisions intended to prevent individuals who have engaged in terrorism from being granted admission to the United States. But these terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds – known as the “TRIG bars” – have been used to exclude victims of terrorism who pose no threat to the United States.

According to our current laws, anyone with a dangerous weapon who uses it for anything other than “personal monetary gain” is a terrorist, and two of those people working together are a terrorist group. In fact, the definitions are so broad that in 2008, Congress was compelled to exempt from the TRIG bars religious and ethnic minority groups that resisted the brutal Burmese regime, as well as Cubans who provided support to those who fought against Fidel Castro, Hmong who fought with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, and members of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.  

At the same time, Congress granted the administration authority to issue additional exemptions in cases where refugees and asylum seekers were unfairly labeled as “terrorists,” and the Obama administration has authorized exemptions for members of certain groups – including the Iraqi uprising.

Recognizing that terrorism does not include selling food at a restaurant, hosting family members for a night, treating the wounded, or providing aid in a refugee camp, last week the administration issued exemptions for individuals who provide “insignificant” assistance, who engaged in certain routine commercial or social transactions, or who provided certain humanitarian assistance.

These are carefully considered and reasonable measures. TRIG bars don’t enhance our national security. Rather, they have delayed or prevented thousands of refugees from coming to the United States, most recently threatening the United States’ ability to rescue the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Congress’ failure to amend overbroad terrorism definitions and the administration’s failure to fully use its authority to grant exemptions undermines America’s leadership in the realm of refugee protection. U.S. foreign policy interests are ill-served when we suggest to oppressive governments and brutal terrorist groups that we consider their victims to be “terrorists” and unsuitable candidates for refugee status.

Refugees are people who have fled their homes in fear of their lives, but our country’s fear of terrorism has already led us to enact policies that sweep up far too many persecuted. America should be where the fear ends.

Nezer is Vice President for Policy and Advocacy at HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.