The following op-ed appeared in USA Today on April 1, 2014
Overzealous security precautions keep America from living up to its ideals.
Last month, as Syria's civil war entered its fourth year, bloodshed continued without pause and the number of refugees continued to swell. Those are among the reasons that the Obama administration took an important step to sustain a U.S. tradition of protecting refugees, including Syrians fleeing their country. But the administration can do more.
The United States has long provided haven and resettlement to those escaping tyranny. And though resettlement will clearly not be the solution for the vast majority of the world's 15 million refugees, it can be a critical and life-saving option for the most vulnerable.
For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have provided this lifeline while taking precautions to keep out individuals who wish to do us harm. But we've failed in maintaining the right balance, unjustly barring people who are not terrorists and who pose no threat to the USA. Because they have been wrongly labeled by provisions of our immigration law, these victims face uncertain and fearful futures.
Our immigration law defines terrorism broadly to include any collection of individuals that uses armed force against any government, even a murderous tyranny opposed by the United States. It does not recognize that in a civil war, it is often impossible for civilians to avoid some contact with such people.
For instance, the law bars entry to an individual fleeing Syria if she had sold food or provided shelter to U.S.-backed Syrian rebels.
The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department recognized this problem and acted to address it. On Feb. 5, they announced two waiver provisions for applicants otherwise eligible for protection who provided "insignificant" or "limited" support to groups that, while still considered terrorist organizations under immigration law, are not officially designated terrorist groups.
To be eligible, individuals must disclose the support and show that they neither intended to support nor knew that their support would further terrorist or violent acts.
Some members of Congress have accused the administration of putting national security at risk, arguing that even this minimal accommodation puts American lives in danger. But they have this backward. The Obama administration hasn't gone too far; it hasn't gone far enough.
The fine details of the rules still falsely label refugees as a threat. For example, the rules block refugees who have provided non-lethal support to the very groups our government backs if that support was not trivial. But why should we punish Syrians for following our lead?
Expand the waiver
There are other categories of refugees who still fall afoul of current law, such as former combatants who never acted against U.S. interests and have laid down their arms, and individuals who provided "insignificant" support for groups that the U.S. has designated as terrorist groups. The administration should consider expanding its waiver to include these groups.
To be sure, while a waiver gives an applicant a chance, it does not give anyone a free ride to refugee status. Case-by-case review is part of granting any waiver.
Individuals must still meet all other eligibility requirements, including passing extensive security and background checks, and must not pose a threat to national security. The goal is to make certain that no dangerous individual — whether from al-Qaeda or any other group in Syria or elsewhere seeking to harm America for any reason — gains U.S. resettlement.
We are not suggesting that the United States admit waves of new refugees. While there are more than 2 million Syrians outside their homeland, the U.S. resettlement program for Syrians is focused only on several thousand of the most vulnerable.
What granting the waiver — and considering its expansion — achieves is the restoration of a measure of justice and common sense to the process while doing no injury to the nation's security needs. By protecting those fleeing terrorists and persecution, it provides a ringing affirmation of our heritage and history as a compassionate, welcoming country.
That is something all Americans should support.
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. Eric P. Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, was assistant secretary of State for population, refugees and migration in the Obama administration. They are members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
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