WHEN CONGRESS passed the Real ID Act last year, it presumably did not intend to prevent human rights victims all over the world from entering the United States. Its goal was to keep terrorists and those who support them from resettling in the United States as refugees. The legislative language, however, was irresponsibly broad; its effects have been cruel to people already oppressed by vile regimes and terrorist groups. The law needs to be changed.
Terrorists were excluded from the United States even before the Real ID Act, but the law made substantial changes to keep out donors to terrorist groups or others who provide them "material support." The trouble is that, because of the new law and its interaction with existing provisions, the legal definitions of terrorism, terrorist organizations and material support are so broad that they include countless people who deserve the United States' protection, not exclusion.
The law bars associates of any group that contains "two or more individuals, whether organized or not, [which] engages in, or has a subgroup which engages in" activities as general as using an "explosive, firearm or other weapon or dangerous device." The law contains no exceptions for people who are forced to support a group, or for children, or for tiny contributions, or for contributions that took place decades ago. It does not make any distinction between an al-Qaeda member and an armed combatant against a murderous regime. While the government has waiver authority in some cases, it has not yet used this power.
The results are terrible. According to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and to officials and academics who have looked at the issue, here are some people who may be barred from entry to the United States: Colombians who were forced to help the leftist insurgency of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; thousands of Karen and Chin nationals who suffered brutal repression at the hands of the Burmese military junta; Liberian, Somali and Vietnamese Montagnard victims of terrorism and repression; and some dissident Cubans who aided anti-Castro forces in the 1960s. The administration recently acknowledged in one asylum proceeding that those who fought with or aided the Northern Alliance against the Taliban or who supported the African National Congress against South Africa's apartheid government would be excluded, too.
A spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who championed the Real ID Act, says the law's waiver authority gives the government the flexibility it needs to deal with such cases. And the problem could be alleviated if the administration would use that authority aggressively. But that would address only some of the cases, and only by having the government forgiving "terrorism" on the part of refugees whom it should not be labeling terrorists in the first place. This problem can be solved only by Congress. If this mess is not what Mr. Sensenbrenner had in mind, he ought to do something to clean it up.