Almost five years ago, a teenage Burmese farmer on his way home from selling cows in India was stopped by a group of rebel soldiers from his region. Dressed in Chin National Army (CNA) uniforms, they asked the young man to deliver a sealed letter to the chairman of his village. While reluctant, he eventually "gave in," and a long journey began.
A Christian Chin, the eighth-grade dropout was not active in the ethnic-based resistance movement, started in 1988 to promote equality and self-determination in place of the oppressive military dictatorship. That did not matter to the three Burmese soldiers who intercepted him the next day.
As they searched his bag, they questioned why he had Indian money, and then found the letter. His small lies were not artful and the beatings began. They continued over the two months he was held at a nearby camp until his father paid a sizable bribe for his release.
Rather than reporting to the camp each week, he fled to Thailand and then on to Malaysia. Like most Burmese Chin, his life as a refugee in Malaysia has been harsh and there has been no family contact. As he remains in danger of deportation or detention, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has recommended that he be resettled to the United States.
Since the fall of 2005 he has remained in limbo, one of 11,000 refugees being held up because of some prior association with groups fighting oppression in their home countries. From Burma to Colombia, the US is having a hard time distinguishing freedom fighters from "terrorists."
These practices are putting a central tenet of US foreign policy at risk. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a recent briefing on human rights, "We must always stand in solidarity with the courageous men and women across the globe who live in fear, yet dream of freedom."
If the US mission is to promote global freedom, we must support those who have stood up to oppression.
But the strengthening of antiterrorism immigration laws, through the USA Patriot Act and Real ID Acts, has expanded the definition of "terrorist" so that two or more people who cause significant property damage or injury could be considered a terrorist organization. The laws also make providing material support to any such organization a reason to be barred. The cause or purpose of the organization is not taken into consideration, nor is the amount of support or whether it was provided under duress. This is where administrative interpretation can be so important.
The definition of terrorism is now too broadly and indiscriminately applied. The Chin and Karen groups of Burma, as a result of repression and active opposition, have fled their homeland by the tens of thousands for the relative safety of neighboring countries. More than 10,000 are now eligible for resettlement to the US but are being delayed and denied in Thailand and Malaysia because of concern that they belong to terrorist groups or have provided them with material support.
During the Vietnam War era, Montagnards and Lao H'mong ethnic groups were associated with US Special Forces. The US has remained a staunch supporter of these groups, resettling thousands in America and speaking out against human rights violations in Laos and Vietnam. Now, H'mong and Montagnards refugees resettlement are delayed because of their material support for opposition organizations allied with the US.
Current US rules put other friends at risk. More than 320 Cubans who backed anti-Castro forces are considered to be material supporters of terrorism. Even Tibetans in Nepal, trained in insurgency tactics by the US in the 1960s and living ever since in refugee camps, could be denied resettlement.
The vast majority of those affected are ordinary people standing up for their rights. In most other contexts, the US does not call these persons "terrorists," but freedom fighters and pro-democracy activists.
When pressed at a Jan. 26 Board of Immigration Appeals hearing on a Burmese asylum case, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) affirmed that members of the African National Congress, like Nelson Mandela, could be barred under current practices, and that Iraqis who helped US Marines locate Jessica Lynch might also be kept out of the US for their "terrorist" activities.
DHS did offer that while these people are "terrorists by definition," they might later be allowed in the US under a waiver. While this might resolve the immediate problem, it doesn't answer the greater question of how US foreign policy is impacted by first labeling individuals or groups as terrorists and then letting them in.
The US cannot have immigration and security policies that are deaf to American beliefs and that undercut the very antiterrorism and pro-democracy efforts America seeks to promote. It is time for the administration to call together senior members of both the DHS and the State Department to quickly resolve this growing dissonance, and, if the problem cannot be resolved under current law, take the lead in working with Congress to align our practices with our ideals.
• Frederick Barton, senior adviser and codirector of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was UN deputy high commissioner for refugees.