In the face of the devastating ISIS-linked attacks in Paris on Friday, debate over Syrian refugees in the U.S. has heightened to panic. The escalation is due in part to the confusion around whether one of the attackers was carrying a fake Syrian passport.
Many public figures (like President Obama and Fox News's Shepard Smith) have disagreed but nonetheless offered clear and compassionate responses. However, others have accused all refugees of working with ISIS, being culturally unable to adapt to the U.S., and being too sensitive to the cold.
Theoretically, the U.S. is set to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016, which began this month. However, the precedent of the past four years suggests otherwise: though the UN office that coordinates refugees referred over 22,000 candidates to the U.S., the U.S. admitted only about 200 refugees total from 2011 to 2014. This year has seen an increased pace, but the numbers still lag far behind even the U.S.' own stated goal.
The process for each individual refugee is exhaustive; it involves a written application, a background check, and an in-depth interview—and usually takes 18 months to two years. Further, refugees must show that they have never been affiliated with any group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
Why is it important?
With the recent human tragedy in Paris and the looming humanitarian disaster in Syria, we need compassionate solutions. Right now, suggestions range from reasonable and informed (like Ron Klain suggesting learning from the Ebola travel concerns) to the bigoted and un-American (like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush encouraging only allowing in Christian refugees).
The U.S. is one piece in a much larger response to the Syrian refugee crisis. It is in our best interest to err on the side of American security with respect to immigration and find other ways to alleviate this humanitarian need.
The largest influence on Syrian refugee resettlement is not U.S. Homeland Security but the UNHCR, which considers only 1% of global refugees as candidates for resettlement and resettled only 100,000 in 2014. The U.S. alone has pledged to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. For context: in 2015, the country anticipated taking only 33,000 refugees from the Middle East and North Africa total.
While the nation can, and likely will, raise its refugee cap going forward, the emphasis should be strongly towards American safety and security. We need to be careful about who we admit and how many, including proving the refugees we are admitting do not have ties to terrorist organizations.
Offering refugees sanctuary is vital to global humanitarian relief and can be done while maintaining American security.
The flip side is also important: refusing refugees is not only wrong but also promotes the same narrative of fear and persecution that ISIS needs to survive.
No one is suggesting refugees shouldn't undergo a comprehensive vetting process to ensure American security. But we have the resources to make this process happen quickly and efficiently. And we can't let prejudice or fear deter us.
Rejecting Syrian refugees is not just bigoted and un-American; it also plays into the same fear-based strategy that ISIS encourages.
- The New York Review of Books' piece on Paris and ISIS' larger strategy
- The Washington Post's comparison to opinion polls on Jewish refugees just before WWII
- Vox's explanation of why the U.S. isn't taking more refugees
- Madeleine Albright's eloquent opinion essay on the issue
- Elizabeth Warren's powerful speech on Syrian refugees and American values