Let’s Get Past the Refugee Rhetoric and Look at the Facts

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Thu, Nov 19 - 2:23 pm EDT | 5 months ago by
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Corridors of Power - Syrian Refugees

The flame wars of this past week lend themselves to the assertion that nothing kills civility like the confluence of terrorism and immigration. The level of hysterical shrieking and moral posturing on all sides of the debate around how to treat refugees in the wake of mounting concerns about terrorism has reached peak mob rule. We’ve been treated to sweeping pronouncements that anyone seeking to stop – or even just pause – the resettlement of displaced Middle Easterners are xenophobic bigots. Arguably more absurd are the neo-fascist calls to shut down mosques and place Muslims in camps, reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s racial-roundup that imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Instead of breathlessly playing into this parade of the horribles, everyone concerned about the refugee issue would do well to take a deep breath and keep an open mind as the facts unfold. If the world as viewed through social media is any indication, it seems as though we genuinely need to remember that well-meaning people can diverge, even on highly emotional and complicated issues, without being evil. If we can at least agree on that basic premise, it might be possible to consider two of the most difficult issues we face politically in a rational light.

Immigration was already a hot button issue within the 2016 presidential campaign before the attacks in Paris tied it much more closely with concerns around terrorism. Virtually all Republican candidates have said from their campaign’s inceptions that we need a tighter border, expressing national security concerns about the matter, even amid disagreements about how immigrants here illegally ought to be treated. Mix this already complicated, emotional issue with legitimate fears surrounding terrorism, and you’ve detonated political dynamite.

As the dust clears in Paris, officials have confirmed that one of the suicide bombers at the Stade de France entered Europe by way of Greece with a fake Syrian passport. The Washington Post reported that, “He disembarked with 197 desperate migrants on the isle of Leros, where harried police processed the man whose Syrian passport named him as Ahmad Almohammad, a 25-year-old from Idlib.” The man’s true identity remains unknown – he may not be Syrian at all – but officials confirmed that his fingerprints matched those of “Almohammad,” who entered Europe on October 3rd.

This has led to a justifiable fear among Americans. As President Obama calls for the United States to take in 10,000 refugees, people want to know how their elected officials will prevent another “Ahmad Almohammad” from forging his way into our country. And the concern goes beyond fake passports: What if ISIS terrorists are, as they claim, embedded in refugee camps? If they can enter Europe so easily, can’t they get into America? These are legitimate concerns that have sparked action among many politicians.

More than half of all governors have said their states will not accept Syrian refugees for fear of endangering their citizens. Every Republican presidential candidate has said we should at least put a pause on if not outright ban Syrian migrants – particularly if they’re not Christians, according specifically to both Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush. Three days after the attack in Paris, Rand Paul introduced a bill reminiscent of one he had filed in 2013. According to a statement from Paul’s Senate office:

“This legislation that would suspend visa issuance for countries with a high risk of terrorism and impose a waiting period for background checks on visa issuance from other countries until the American people can be assured terrorists cannot enter the country through our immigration and visa system.” In addition, the bill would make sure that immigrants already in the U.S. via countries that pose high terror risks are being monitored, and would make sure that the Department of Homeland Security’s entry-exit system is 100 percent complete, ensuring that people are not overstaying their visas. Paul also introduced an amendment that would block welfare benefits for any new refugees that enter the U.S.

While these are arguably common sense measures, especially seeing as the terrorists who executed 9/11 entered the U.S. through visas, it’s equally important to make sure we as citizens aren’t driving politicians to legislate through fear absent rational thinking. Most reasonable people would agree that instituting a more stringent screening process is wise. But does that mean we cannot admit any of these suffering Syrian refugees at all? Is President Obama’s modest proposal of 10,000 truly too much for the United States to handle?

Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst for the Cato Institute, wrote a compelling piece that delves into the processes around our refugee system, and convincingly contrasted the situation in Europe with what takes place here. As he explained, “There are many differences between Europe’s vetting of asylum seekers from Syria and how the United States screens refugees. The geographic distance between the United States and Syria allows our government to better vet those seeking to come here while large numbers of Syrians who want to go to Europe show up at their borders and are less carefully vetted. A lax security situation there does not imply a lax security situation here.”

Nowrasteh also presented some sobering statistics, explaining that of the 859,629 refugees admitted into the U.S. since 2001, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks, all on targets outside of the United States, and none of the plots were successful. (As Nowrasteh notes, the Boston Marathon bombers were from a family that sought asylum, a distinction with a major difference). “That is one terrorism-planning conviction for a refugee for every 286,543 of them who have been admitted. To put that in perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014,” wrote Nowrasteh.

Of course, these statistics don’t mean that Americans have no right to be alarmed by the prospect of terror on our shores. After all, ISIS has made it abundantly clear that they seek Western targets, the United States included. It seems however, amid our justifiable concern, that pointing fingers at refugees as it pertains to how terrorists actually enter the U.S. may be misguided. As Paul noted and many other politicians have long pointed out, the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. on business, tourism, and student visas and overstayed them as a result of insufficient policing in this arena.

This is not to say that ISIS operatives embedding themselves in refugee camps isn’t a new type of threat. The federal government should in no way be lax in its vetting process, and there are legitimate concerns around whether the agencies in question are properly following their own rules on this. But as Nowrasteh explained, “Few ISIS soldiers or other terrorists are going to spend at least three years in a refugee camp for a 0.042 percent chance of entering the United States when almost any other option to do so is easier, cheaper, quicker.” Refugees are simply not pouring onto our shores and allowed to enter with a cursory look at a passport, as was the case with the Paris bomber in Greece.

Europe has a major problem on its hands, but their troubles don’t quite mirror what we’re facing in the U.S. The flame war over displaced Syrians has obscured the point that refugees themselves are rarely the problem. As of this writing, the man with the forged passport does remain a mystery, but all of the terrorists identified in the Paris attacks were either Belgian or French nationals. As we move forward with this debate, all sides ought to extend each other grace, consider the facts, and ideally, work toward a solution that will allow refugees who are truly in need to seek the American Dream.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.

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