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The Un-American Politics of Rejecting Refugees

In the wake of tragedy, elected officials need to lead—not stoke pointless, xenophobic fear.

Syrian refugees in Jordan. Imag.e by DFID - U.K Department for International Development via Wikimedia Commons

The attacks in Paris last Friday, which killed 132 people and wounded 352 more, were the worst assault on France since World War II and the most grievous terrorist act in Europe since 2004’s Madrid train bombings. This mass murder deserves to be mourned, memorialized, and even avenged. Sadly, though, the world has rapidly politicized this loss of life, weaving carnage into currency used to shamelessly advance ideologies and stoke outraged actions. Ostensibly rhetoric in the service of justice and security, such uses of pain almost inevitably cheapen our grief by subjugating it to knee-jerk, fear-mongering policies. Unfortunately, this trend has been on full display in the United States over the past couple of days, as elected officials use this massacre to advance a plan that lacks logic or legality, will almost certainly look foolish in retrospect, and may actually distract us from more salient and sound lessons from Paris. These officials want to staunch the United States’ meager flow of Syrian refugees for safety reasons.

To those confused as to why a terrorist act perpetrated by agents of the Islamic State would be used to shun Syrian refugees—displaced by violence perpetrated in part by that same terrorist group—here’s a quick recap: In the aftermath of Paris, French officials tied at least one (although some suspect two) of the eight known attackers to the influx of refugees sweeping through Europe this year. The attacker apparently showed up on the Greek island of Leros on October 3 in a boat with 198 other migrants coming from Turkey, identified himself as a Syrian, registered for asylum in Serbia, then moved west. Despite the fact that he was part of a group of mostly European-born attackers (and just one of the 218,000 refugees who entered Europe in October alone), his probable use of migrant routes has led American and European citizens and lawmakers alike to panic-scramble toward some kind of stopgap against more potential attacks.

In the United States, the quest to prevent a Paris-like attacker from sneaking into the nation has prompted the governors of (at last count) 27 states to take actions to prevent Syrian refugees from settling in their cities and towns. (The current list: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.) Some states have outright claimed the ability to reject migrants while others have called for a suspension of refugee services to make relocation impossible. Some have even called for the U.S. to completely scuttle plans at the federal level for the resettlement of 10,000 Syrians in the country over the next year—a plan put forth by the Obama administration this September (and a minuscule number; even Canada is taking more than us: 25,000). A number of Republican presidential candidates, including Jeb! Bush—who supports letting in only Christian Syrians—Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump, have backed these bans or obstructions as well. At best, those opposed to the resettlement of Syrian refugees say they’d be less fearful if our vetting of refugees were more reliable; even Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders voiced a similar view. But all this chatter is woefully ill-informed and will ultimately be harmful to Syrian refugees fleeing unimaginable atrocities as well as to the increasingly tarnished reputation of our nation.

Those proposing U.S. plans to turn away Syrian refugees fail to recognize that the situation in Europe, which allegedly allowed one foul actor to sneak in alongside millions, bears no resemblance whatsoever to the tightly controlled American situation. In Europe, most migrants arrive as asylum seekers, who are supposedly meant to wait in one place while their identities are vetted. They’re then either assigned refugee status or turned away. But the sheer mass of humanity crashing into the continent means that many are moving freely across porous borders, especially as some countries channel migrants toward others to relieve pressure on overburdened intake centers. This means that Europe lacks the capacity to control exactly who gets and in, and over time this leads to greater security concerns.

In the United States, on the other hand, the fact that we’re separated by an ocean from Syria and have only two borders with very cooperative neighbors makes it incredibly difficult to claim asylum here. Most who did so were tourists or professionals already in the States when conflict broke out in their homeland. Instead, the Syrian refugees we’re looking at taking in now have already been thoroughly, excruciatingly vetted, usually over the course of one or two years. First, they are screened and interviewed by the United Nations, which recommends only a small fraction of candidates for resettlement in America. Then the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Health and Human Services all re-vet the refugee candidates, checking them against numerous security databases, investigating their stories all over again, and searching out any possible reason to turn them away. We pay great attention to people coming from tumultuous regions—perhaps more than we ever have before. That’s why, since 2012, we’ve taken in less than 2,000 Syrian refugees, despite the fact that in 1975, after the fall of Saigon, we took in 130,000 South Vietnamese within the space of a few months, and felt no great ill effect from hidden North Vietnamese saboteurs.

As this vetting process (and the refugee resettlement program as a whole) operates at a federal level, there’s no real way for states to block resettlement into their towns, as some governors have admitted. What they can do is refuse to cooperate with the feds, cutting off refugee services. This obstruction can be challenged on discrimination grounds if it targets a particular ethnicity or religion (as it does), but even if it’s illegal, until action is taken, it can functionally keep migrants from moving into a state right away.

Data is curated by and sourced from Refugee Processing Center, U.S. State Department, Associated Press.

This obstructionism is pointless. The refugees are coming to America—as they should. Seven states to date (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington) have vowed to cooperate with resettlement plans. And once those refugees are in the United States, they have the ability to freely travel within the nation and to relocate wherever they may so choose. That means that these bans, even if they were legal, would do nothing whatsoever to stop potentially bad-actor refugees (who, given our vetting procedures, are unlikely to get into the nation in the first place).

These refugee bans make no sense. They fail to recognize how dissimilar the U.S. situation is from Europe’s ordeal. They fail to recognize American legal realities. But more than any of that, as numerous politicians have pointed out, they betray fundamental American values of inclusivity and refuge. They shirk our moral responsibility to aid those displaced by a conflict that has killed 250,000, destroyed a nation, and for which we are at least partially responsible by merit of our chronically misguided and shortsighted Middle Eastern politics. (Americans often balk at that notion, but the sooner we own our culpability, the better it will be for us and for the world, now and in the view of history.) And, coming as they do alongside calls for tighter monitoring of Islamic communities in the States and implicit calls for religious or ethnic tests on migrants, they reek of a deep Islamophobia. Given that the vast majority of the Paris attackers were Europeans, and given the acknowledged presence of a massive homegrown terrorist front in Europe (consisting of white radicals and Muslim extremists), it’s bizarre that we’ve chosen to restrict entrance to Syrian refugees and not to Belgian or French citizens.

Yet for all the problems with these bans, for all the attendant poor logic and xenophobia, the mind-set and emotional forces behind them are understandable. Historically, we’ve always feared large waves of migrants. Granted, those waves are usually larger than 10,000 people. But especially when incomers arrive from war-torn regions, it’s only natural for nervous minds to entertain visceral fears that something wicked might crawl from the chaos and tag along. It’s a fear that doesn’t often hold up to logical scrutiny and fades with time. But in the aftermath of tragedy, it’s real.

But that’s what leaders are (supposedly) for. The people who lead us are meant to quell our irrational fears and help guide us toward a wise course of action. The governors, candidates, and other politicians who want to ban refugee resettlement are not acting like leaders. Instead, they are pandering to our fears, scoring points for themselves, their parties, and their agendas by commodifying tragedy and making weak, irrational, pointless noise. In doing so, they might make some people feel safe. But they also betray us, both by failing us as leaders and by failing to redirect fears to address the actual security situation.

So here’s the truth: America does not face the insecurity that France faces—we have better communications intelligence, a completely different border setup, and we’re just more geographically distant from the conflict at hand. But that doesn’t mean America is safe. America is not safe. Terrorism is like water. It flows through any crack it can. We are never safe once and for all. We should know this by now: There is no end to fighting terror. This is something we never want to hear. It scares us. But it’s true. And although we are never existentially safe, we are reasonably safe right now. And we can ensure that safety best not by indulging our most paranoid inclinations in the wake of tragedy, but instead by engaging in measured dialogue on the underlying causes of the tragedy and working to mitigate those causes.

In this case, that means recognizing the problem is not Syrian refugees, but the continued existence of the Islamic State, which, unlike terrorism in general, can be defeated. Ending ISIS will not end terrorism, but it will deal a serious blow to the sickening terror campaign the group is waging throughout the world, giving us the space to address chronic regional instability and the refugee crisis as a whole. It’s up to us right now to examine how the Islamic State came to be and why we’ve failed to deliver on previous post-tragedy promises to destroy it—and use that insight to do something concrete and direct, rather than quell people’s fears with xenophobia and pointless posturing.

The politicization of the Paris attacks has been shameful, both in its callous mobilization of tragedy and the type of politics it’s bolstered. The rejection of migrants by the United States is legally and logically ridiculous. It hurts us—our reputation and our soul as a nation—and helps the Islamic State by legitimizing their campaign of fear and perpetuating the chaos and disenfranchisement upon which they thrive. The governors who have proposed the ban are doing a profound disservice to their electorates, to America’s image and values, and to the very concept of democratic leadership by pandering to fear as they have. I can only hope that our national paranoia fades in time for us to realize the absurdity of our actions toward some of the world’s most marginalized peoples, whom we’re already doing far too little to help (especially given our tangential-to-direct role in their suffering). In a country built on immigrant stories, it’s a disgrace to turn away people seeking better lives and a refuge from conflict—especially out of baseless fear.

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