One of the biggest issues to emerge after the terror attacks in Paris is what we should be doing about the Syrian refugee crisis. This might seem odd, given that none of the attackers were Syrian nor were any of them refugees. But, as is often the case, a tragedy is serving as a springboard for another issue (see my post on encryption). It may reach a head this week as the House voted overwhelmingly to pause the refugees program despite angry veto threats from the President. And many governors have refused to allow refugees to be settled in their states (it’s not clear that they have such power, however).
There’s a lot to unpack here so pull up a chair.
First, I agree with many of the critics that the fear of refugees is out of proportion to the danger they represent. You can read a number of articles going through the basics. Bottom line:
Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States, and none was successfully carried out. That is one terrorism-planning conviction for every 286,543 refugees that have been admitted. To put that in perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014. The terrorist threat from Syrian refugees in the United States is hyperbolically over-exaggerated and we have very little to fear from them because the refugee vetting system is so thorough.
You should also check out this debunking of various myths about the Syrian refugees including the myth that Middle Eastern countries aren’t taking them in (they’ve taken in about 5 million) and that most of the refugees are military-age men (they aren’t). It also goes a bit into our vetting process, which is a very thorough year-long process that requires refugees to detail and document everything about their lives. You can’t just show up at the border with a torn-up robe and get in.
That having been said, I don’t think the concern about refugees is completely irrational. We have had incidents where potential terrorists have gotten into this country. The Obama Administration itself suspended its Iraqi refugee program for six months due to vetting concerns. I don’t think people are opposing refugees because they are uncaring racists cowering in fear and horror from three-year-old orphans. There’s nothing irrational about not wanting to die at the hands of a terrorist.
Indeed, as pointed out by Megan McArdle, who favors admitting more refugees, the arguments being raised by the pro-refugees side are not only terrible, they’re almost designed to rile up the opposition:
Perfectly reasonable people are worried that a small number of terrorists could pretend to be refugees in order to get into the U.S. for an attack. One response to these reasonable people has been: “How dare you say people fleeing terrorism are terrorists!” This is deeply silly. Obama administration officials have admitted that they can’t be sure of screening terrorists out from asylum seekers.
Obama, to put it mildly, has been acting like a world class shit. Instead of trying to work with his opponents and assuage their entirely reasonable concerns, he’s hectoring them, accusing them of cowardice and bigotry. That’s sure to play well with liberals, who’ve long wanted that sort of tone. It’s sure to rally people to support Clinton. But it is not going to persuade anyone. When was the last time, “you’re a coward and a bigot!” was met with the response of, “Oh, yeah, you’re right.”?
And frankly, I’m getting a little tired of being lectured about what we should be afraid of from a man who lives in a big house surrounded by an iron fence and a cadre of heavily armed, if not always sober, Secret Service agents. It’s incredibly condescending. In fact, Obama’s arguments are so bad and so designed to stiffen the opposition, I’m actually wondering if that’s the point. I’m wondering if Obama wants to suspend the refugee program but wants to blame Republican racism for it.
(Probably my least favorite argument in favor of the refugees? That blocking them is “what ISIS wants”. This is an argument I find it both glib and extremely weak. “What ISIS wants”, even presuming we know what they want, is kind of irrelevant. We need to do what’s appropriate, whether they want it or not. Japan wanted a war with us when they bombed Pearl Harbor. It didn’t work out too well for them.)
A few people have proposed a compromise where we only accept Christian refugees. Putting aside other concerns, I find this to be an odd proposition. Do they think that terrorists will fake passports, murder people, blow themselves up … but draw the line at pretending to be Christian?
What do I think? I think, with proper vetting, we should be admitting refugees. Not hundreds of thousands, but a significant number. Stopping the flow of refugees to stop terrorists is like burning down your house because you saw a cockroach. There are millions of Syrian refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom have gone to Europe specifically and we have … so far … no terrorist attacks involving them.
The 9/11 hijackers were not refugees. The undie bomber wasn’t. The Fort Hood shooter wasn’t. The shoe bomber wasn’t. The Tsarnaev brothers were immigrants but were not technically refugees and, in any case, were not sleeper agents but were radicalized right here in the United States.
Refusing refugees because of Paris will cause suffering for thousands and is unlikely to prevent any terrorist attacks. We are much better off focusing our efforts on electronic and human intelligence. We are much better of tracking radicals and attacking ISIS at its source.
The gripping hand is that I am loathe to make rash decisions in the immediate aftermath of a horrible tragedy. That’s how we get things like the Patriot Act. I think it’s entirely appropriate to demand rigorous screening of refugees. I think it’s entirely appropriate to keep an eye on them. I think we may make accepting them conditional on returning once the situation has improved (if it ever does). And I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to suspend refugee admissions until we’re clear that all of the above has been done.
So, for right now, I’m sort with the Republicans on this. But long term, I do think we have something of a moral obligation here. We did, after all, create this problem. By toppling Saddam, then by leaving, then by letting ISIS wax, then by throwing in against Assad. We unleashed this chaos. And I think we have some culpability in cleaning up the mess.