In the wake of Friday’s devastating terrorist attacks in Paris, people around the world are understandably shaken. Found next to the body of a suicide bomber in Paris was a fake Syrian passport that indicated the owner came through Greece posing as a refugee in October. Concerns about security threats Syrian refugees may pose have followed. In the United States, Republican politicians have used widespread anxiety to advance their xenophobic agendas.
The anti-refugee attacks could not come at a worse time. After a brutal four-year conflict, the Syrian refugee crisis only began receiving international attention several months ago. A photo of drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, circulated the internet, and actor Benedict Cumberbatch made an impassioned speech after his Hamlet performance, decrying the UK government’s “slow response” to the crisis.
Since the attack, governors from 30 states have announced publicly that they will refuse to take Syrian refugees. States do not have authority to reject refugees—that power lies with the president. However, GOP members of Congress have called for new provisions in the next spending bill banning refugees, which may lead to a government shutdown next month.
Republican presidential candidates were quick to join in. Senator Marco Rubio—who is the son of Cuban immigrants—said over the weekend that the U.S. should stop accepting refugees altogether. “Who do you call and do a background check on them?” Rubio asked. Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz said that the U.S. should continue accepting refugees—as long as they are Christian. Cruz suggested that there is “no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” As The Economist blog noted, “one wonders how victims of the recent mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, feel about Mr. Cruz’s statement.”
President Obama called suggestions of a religious test “shameful.” Speaking at a G20 Summit in Turkey, the President said, “That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
Attacks on refugees are shameful and un-American. In the fight against ISIS, the U.S. should be accepting more, not fewer, refugees.
The United States has a responsibility to lead resettlement efforts.
Historically, the U.S. has been a leader in refugee resettlement. From 1979 to 1980, the U.S. accepted nearly 320,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. In the late 1980s, the U.S. took in people fleeing from the Soviet Union.
To uphold its record, the U.S. would have to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees. Embarrassingly, the U.S. has accepted only 1,800 refugees from Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. In September, President Obama pledged to take 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year. In response to the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, the U.S. should be stepping up to help.
Instead, Syria’s neighbors—Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon—have borne a burden they cannot support. As David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee writes, Lebanon, a country half the size of New Jersey, has accepted over one million Syrian refugees.
It is unclear whether or not the U.S. can even meet its meager goal, with only 187 Syrian refugees admitted in October. At that rate, wrote Dara Lind of Vox, “it would take 53 months—four and a half years—to reach this year’s goal.”
There remains hesitation among the American public. According to a Reuters poll, 52 percent of Americans believe countries that accept Syrian refugees are less safe. When asked whether or not countries should continue to accept refugees, 40 percent of Americans said yes, and 41 percent said no.
This fear is not new. In a 1938 survey, fewer than five percent of Americans said that more Jewish refugees should be taken in the U.S. The Holocaust Museum said on Tuesday, “we have a mandate to be the voice that the Jews of the 1930s did not have.” Refugees were accepted from Germany and Austria; however, the process was slow, and many have argued that the U.S. should have accepted many more. It was the failure to give homes to people fleeing from the Nazis that prompted efforts to build an international refugee system. The U.S. cannot adopt the same attitude it had before this system was ever in place.
Refugees are screened more than any other group entering the United States.
“Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both,” said President Obama on Monday. President Obama takes seriously the security concerns of foreigners entering the U.S., which is why the process for refugees to come to the U.S. is so exhaustive. Coming to the U.S. as a refugee is the most difficult path “short of swimming the Atlantic,” wrote Miliband.
There will inevitably be bad people among the millions entering countries that accept refugees. But the vast majority of refugees are people fleeing terrorism. By leaving Syria, these people are disobeying ISIS, who claim the state they have created is a paradise. Nevertheless, the attacks in Paris have increased fears that terrorists may come into these countries posing as refugees.
Overwhelmed by the flow of refugees, the vetting process in Greece is limited. The Paris attacker who arrived in Greece last month would only have to give his fingerprints and information, and would be asked several questions before being permitted to enter Europe. Every other person involved in the attacks has been identified as either a French or Belgian national.
The U.S. government has a system to stop this from happening. If a terrorist came to the U.S. as a refugee today, it would take two years for that person to be screened by the U.S. government. Each refugee must go through an exhaustive process of background checks, vetting, and face-to-face interviews directed by the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI.
Rejecting refugees is a strategic mistake.
By closing its doors to refugees, the U.S. embodies the idea of an evil West that ISIS propagates. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, explained, “Having this wedge driven, where [ISIS] is able to intensify the backlash against refugees might help with recruiting efforts by extremists to recruit among the refugee population.”
“You hear Republicans saying clash of civilizations and civilizational war, and they don’t realize that’s exactly what ISIS wants us to be saying,” said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
If, however, refugees are allowed to build new lives in the U.S., they are more likely to feel grateful and make positive contributions.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” reads the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.
It is by these words that people fleeing persecution have always been welcomed in our country. These refugees are not terrorists. They are Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, and Henry Kissinger.
In claiming to protect American lives, Republican politicians are dishonoring American values. It is right to screen people entering this country carefully, but turning them away is both a moral and a tactical mistake.
If anything, the attacks in Paris give the rest of the world a glimpse of the terrors refugees are risking their lives to escape.