After this month’s attacks in Paris, it didn’t take French authorities long to determine that the suicide bomber whose body was found outside a soccer stadium had only posed as a Syrian refugee in order to get into Europe. The numbers on his Syrian passport weren’t legitimate, and the picture on it didn’t match the name. We don’t know who he was or where his travels started; we only know that he sailed through a police checkpoint in Greece, and that he was not a Syrian refugee.
As for the rest of the attackers, a top European Union official said last week that they’d all been identified as EU citizens — mostly French and Belgian nationals — meaning they could have entered the US without even obtaining visas.
But none of these revelations have slowed the fetid stream of nativism and Islamophobia from reaching the United States.
Republican presidential candidates in particular have used the Paris attacks as a pretext to scaremonger over the US’s Syrian refugee program. First, Ben Carson sent letters to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, urging them to pass a bill that would defund the program. Not to be outdone, Sen. Ted Cruz said there should be a ban on all refugees who aren’t Christians, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said we should “close our borders instead of Guantanamo,” and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the refugee prohibition should extend to orphans under the age of five.
After initially calling for a “big, beautiful safe zone” for refugees in the Syrian desert, Donald Trump is now advocating a national database to track Muslims. And he’s recycled the bogus claim that a crowd in “New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations,” watched the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11 and cheered.
Last Thursday the House of Representatives attempted to codify such nativism, voting 289-137 to impose new screening requirements on refugees from Syria and Iraq. (The bill is expected to face more opposition in the Senate, and President Obama has already pledged a veto should it reach his desk.)
At the state level, some thirty Republican governors have either called for a federal ban or vowed to block the entry of refugees into their states, even though it’s clear that they don’t have the constitutional authority to do so. (Maggie Hassan, the Democratic governor of New Hampshire, also insisted the federal program should be halted.) “It makes no sense under the best of circumstances,” said Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, “for the United States to allow people into our country who have the avowed desire to harm our communities, our institutions, and our people.”
The rising Islamophobia isn’t confined to the halls of power. At a community meeting in Virginia last week, one resident denounced members of a local mosque as “terrorists,” telling them, “Nobody wants your evil cult in this country.” And over the weekend in Texas, a dozen armed protesters assembled outside a mosque, objecting to federal plans to accept more Syrian refugees. “We do want to show force,” one of them told the Dallas Morning News. “It would be ridiculous to protest Islam without defending ourselves.”
Much of this bilious rhetoric, of course, is based on outright falsehoods. In truth, the problem is precisely the opposite of the one nativist demagogues have identified. The US’s vetting process is so meticulous and lengthy that an infinitesimal number of refugees have been permitted into the country. Indeed, while Obama has rightly denounced the vitriol directed at refugees, the number he wants to accept — ten thousand — is egregiously low considering the millions displaced. Rather than aid French airstrikes or carry out its own, the United States should open its borders.
The origins of the Syrian exodus are in March 2011, when the government tortured a group of teenagers for painting revolutionary slogans on a school wall. News of the act sparked a series of popular protests, and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime responded by slaughtering demonstrators in the streets.
These conflicts exploded into a full-scale civil war by 2012, and by June 2013, the death toll had reached 90,000. It’s now surpassed 250,000. The United Nations says more than four million people have fled the country, and another 7.6 million have been internally displaced.
Shortly after the conflicts started, the US began accepting Syrian referrals from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as part of the country’s broader refugee program (which was established in 1980). But between 2011 and 2014, while Syrians were entering countries like Turkey and Lebanon by the millions, the US only accepted about two hundred of them. The US figure is now up to about 2,200: an improvement, but still a small fraction of the 22,457 the UNHCR has referred.
Because the US has asked the UNHCR to prioritize the most vulnerable refugees, about half of those it has taken in are children; the rest are mostly mothers, the elderly, and people who have been tortured or who need special medical assistance. Only 2 percent are single men of combat age. In terms of location, they’re spread across 138 cities and towns in 36 states, with the biggest groupings in California (252), Texas (242), and Michigan (207).
The fulcrum of the stricter screening argument is the claim that there’s no way of verifying anything the refugees say about themselves. “The problem is we can’t background check them,” Sen. Marco Rubio told ABC last week. “You can’t pick up the phone and call Syria.”
But this assertion is simply false. Rubio and his ilk are drawing on a popular mental image of Syria as a primitive country, a desert full of hut-dwellers with almost no technology or modern record-keeping.
Yet a senior State Department official, addressing these claims last week, called the Syrians a “very, very heavily documented population,” adding that they can typically show passports and family registries. And Kathleen Newland, a cofounder of the Migration Policy Institute, told the Atlantic that a police state, a “well-organized society” like Syria, would be more likely to have documentation than poorer countries where most citizens lack government-issued birth certificates or passports.
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson did say last month that the US doesn’t “know a whole lot about a lot of the Syrians that come forth in the process.” But Johnson was referring to the earliest stages of the refugees’ applications, explaining why it takes two years to vet each person.
Even after being screened by the UNHCR — which itself accepts less than 1 percent of the world’s refugee population — each applicant goes through background checks, followed by face-to-face interviews with trained interrogators from agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. They check applicants’ testimonies against one another for inconsistencies, and they collect detailed biographical and biometric data.
So is there any logistical reason why the US couldn’t accept more refugees?
Essentially all that’s holding the refugee program back is federal funding. On the international side, the US could evaluate refugees faster and in larger volumes by increasing its security staff. And on the domestic side, resettlement costs are fairly modest — partly because nonprofits, mosques, churches, and community centers bear a large share of the burden of helping refugees acclimate, and partially because the program is oriented around helping them attain financial self-sufficiency.
Refugees start paying taxes immediately and covering rent as soon as their minimal housing stipends run out (which typically happens within three months). Even the costs of their plane tickets are treated as loans. And an employment program helps nearly all refugees find jobs within four to six months of their arrival (albeit often in low-wage positions in hotels and factories).
Far from being a drain, refugees end up bringing considerable economic benefits to the communities in which they settle. It’s one of the reasons Germany cited for its plan to accept 800,000 refugees, and it’s why Rick Snyder, the fiscally conservative governor of Michigan, was eager to take in refugees before the Paris attacks.
But the pecuniary benefits are secondary. Syrians of all ages and occupations are abandoning their homes to flee from unimaginable horrors, facing the possibility of interminable limbo at tent camps in the desert, in close proximity to the war. The US has a moral obligation to welcome as many of those displaced as possible.
Church World Service, one of the nine nonprofits that works with the federal government to resettle refugees, has called for the admission of 100,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year — on top of the 85,000 worldwide refugees the Obama administration is already planning to bring in. Jen Smyers, policy director for the organization’s refugee program, pointed out that the US accepted some 200,000 refugees a year during the early 1980s, the largest share of them Vietnamese.
We could easily do so again.
To their credit, the Democratic presidential candidates haven’t resorted to fearmongering. Though still parsimonious given the need, the 65,000 refugee cap that Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have called for would be an improvement. And Bernie Sanders said in a speech last week that “we will not turn our backs on the refugees who are fleeing Syria and Afghanistan.”
Still, the restrictionist impulse knows no party boundaries. In a CBS News poll, 77 percent of Democrats said they support a “stricter security process” for Syrian refugees than the one in place. That would simply throw up additional — potentially lethal — hurdles.
Left organizing for a more humane refugee program, then, must both quell misinformed paranoia and take on racism and Islamophobia.