What if Material Support Laws Had Existed During Nazi Terror?

Posted on Mon, Aug 21, 2006 at 13:47 pm

by Gideon Aronoff, HIAS President and CEO

In an absurd twist, America’s anti-terrorism laws are now being used to deny protection to refugees fleeing some of the most brutal regimes and violent conflicts on earth. Shockingly, under today’s laws, Jews who bravely resisted Nazi terror—and who as a result were among those who survived the war—would have faced exclusion when they sought refuge in the U.S. Under the law, any individual who has provided what the law terms “material support” to terrorists is barred from entering the United States. Of course, measures taken to prevent terrorists from being supported, and to keep their supporters out, are critically important. However, the U.S. government is using the material support provision to exclude victims of terrorism, including those whose very struggle to be free now makes them inadmissible to the United States.

As examples, Burmese ethnic minority groups who are viciously repressed by the Burmese regime—generally viewed as one of the most brutal in the world—are not being processed for admission to the U.S. Likewise, Hmong refugees from Laos, who were ardent supporters of the U.S. government during the Vietnam War, are now in danger of being denied admission to the U.S. Colombians who have paid ransom to obtain the release of a kidnapped loved one are considered by the U.S. government to be supporters of terrorism. In a particularly disturbing case, a woman from Sierra Leone who was raped by rebels who took over her home was “deferred” from the U.S. refugee program for providing material support to terrorists—in her case, housing.

Under the broad terrorism definition, support for a group that is associated with armed resistance against a repressive regime constitutes material support to terrorism—even if the group’s actions are not terrorist acts by any reasonable definition of the term terrorism, the government it opposes is a major human rights violator, and the U.S. government openly supports the goals of the opposition group. Even refugees whose actions in support of terrorist groups were forced or coerced have been barred from the country. According to the U.S. government, duress is not an excuse—any contribution to a terrorist group, even if it was made at gunpoint or under threat of death, constitutes material support to terrorism. The motives, circumstances, and beliefs of the refugee are irrelevant.

Had this policy been in place in the years following World War II, the United States would have closed the door to the Bielski family. When the Nazis murdered their parents and two brothers along with thousands of other Jews in western Belarus in 1941, the four surviving Bielski brothers fled into the woods. They joined with a small group of other survivors and over the next two years recruited more than 1,000 Jews to join them rather than report for deportation. The forest camp soon became a community—and a fighting unit. The Bielskis pillaged food, attacked the enemy, and destroyed supply depots. When the war ended in Belarus in 1944, 1,200 men, women, and children emerged from the forest. The Bielskis, who were able to begin new lives in the United States, would not have been welcomed today because of their courageous defiance of the Nazis.

Congress must amend the law to ensure that innocent victims are not branded as “terrorists” and refused safe haven. In the meantime, Congress gave the Administration discretionary authority to determine that the bar does not apply in some cases. The Administration should exercise this authority immediately. To date, the authority has never been used.

President Bush has repeatedly expressed the view that the U.S. refugee program reflects our finest humanitarian tradition. To honor this tradition, the Bush Administration must exempt legitimate refugees from the “material support” bar to admission where the support provided has been coerced under extreme duress, or where it is otherwise clear that the refugees seeking the protection of the United States are not supporters of terrorism, but are in fact victims of tyranny and oppression. We must ensure that the Bielskis of today continue to be received with welcome, not with the indifference of authorities who are “just following the law.”

Gideon Aronoff President and CEO Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society