Mislabeling Refugees as Terrorists | The Center for Victims of Torture

Mislabeling Refugees as Terrorists

Alan Goldfarb headshot
Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Guest blogger Alan Goldfarb is a member of the CVT Public Policy Committee


As an immigration lawyer, I have been fortunate to experience the profound difference a grant of asylum makes to a person who survives terrible trauma. A seemingly fragile victim of politically motivated violence becomes a resilient survivor after gaining the protection that comes with asylum.

However, too many people are being denied this critical benefit because of extraordinary processing delays that stem in part from overly broad definitions of terrorism in U.S. immigration laws that have resulted in barring many people fleeing civil conflict. We need to amend the far-reaching definitions of terrorist activity and terrorist organizations under U.S. immigration law to protect victims of terrorism and uphold our commitment to refugees.

The expanded terrorism bars enacted by Congress since 2001 block too many applications by refugees who have absolutely no connection to terrorism. They apply to anyone who at any time used armed force as a non-state actor or gave support to those who did. These expanded bars explain why a woman from Eritrea who applied for asylum in 2000 is still waiting for her immigration case to be resolved, despite now being married to a naturalized citizen and raising two children who were born here. Her case is on hold because a government trial attorney accused her of being a terrorist under this expanded definition. The only reason given is that 40 years ago, as a 15-year-old, she brought cigarettes to rebels fighting for independence from Ethiopia.        

During the last decade, the U.S. government began applying provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 and the REAL ID Act of 2005 to refugees, asylum seekers and other applicants for immigration benefits in a way that excludes many victims of terrorism. These new laws expanded on already-effective protections against those who present a danger to our communities. A1990 law created exclusions for terrorist activity and barred anyone who provided material support to an organization engaged in terrorist activity, and a 1996 law defined a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” as one that threatens the interest and security of the United States.

The expanded terrorism bars challenge our ability to protect legitimate refugees. The USA PATRIOT Act created a separate category of undesignated terrorist groups. Defined as two or more individuals, whether organized or not, these groups are labeled as terrorist organizations even if the U.S. supports their goals, civilians aren’t targeted, or the group no longer exists. “Terrorist activity” means any use of armed force by a non-state actor, other than armed robbery for personal profit. Affiliation with or provision of material support to a terrorist organization in any capacity except under duress is grounds for exclusion. 

As a result, applicants are being labeled terrorists when they pose no danger to the U.S. and they have done nothing wrong. The laws bar refugees who support any group associated with armed resistance against a government, even if the government violently represses ethnic or religious groups and closes peaceful avenues for political change. Labeling someone a terrorist for giving cigarettes to rebels fighting a repressive dictatorship may seem like an extreme example, but there are many other examples where the terrorism bars have been applied in ways that clearly don’t serve our national interests. Nelson Mandela, the former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize winner, a symbol of peaceful reconciliation, was deemed to be inadmissible to the United States on terrorism-related grounds because of his role with the African National Congress fighting apartheid. In another case, an Iraqi interpreter who served U.S. forces during the conflict in Iraq, and who was granted asylum, was denied permanent residence as a terrorist because he had served in an organization that helped incite a rebellion against Saddam Hussein.

It is important to note that not even the U.S. government considers those affected by this overreaching law to be dangerous. Many have already been granted asylum or refugee status in the United States only to be classified as terrorists when they applied for permanent residence. Their cases have been placed on hold under a process available only if they meet the condition that they pose no threat to the United States. 

We need to change our immigration law definitions to target actual terrorism. Refugees who have not engaged in acts of wrongdoing and pose no threat of harm to the United States or its allies are not terrorists.



We heal victims of torture through unique services and professional care worldwide.

Read More


We strengthen partners who heal torture survivors and work to prevent torture.

Read More


We advocate for the protection & care of torture survivors and an end to torture.

Read More