News Stories on Syrian Refugees and American Politics—Sad, Predictable, Disappointing

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November 16, 2015; NBC News

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder are no longer alone among state government chief executives warning the federal government not to send Syrian refugees to their states. Joining them by mid-afternoon yesterday were Texas Governor Greg Abbott (“Texas WILL NOT accept any Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks”), Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, Governor Phil Bryant of Mississippi, Ohio Governor (and presidential candidate) John Kasich, and Louisiana Governor (and presidential candidate) Bobby Jindal. CNN added Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin had joined the list of states rejecting Syrian refugees. The status of potential Syrian asylum seekers, to be vetted after an 18–24 month federal process, is now a political issue, almost a test of Republican mettle against their Democratic opposition.

At the national level, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AZ) urged Congress to pass legislation withdrawing any funding that would go to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S., echoing the position of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. Republican presidential candidate and former Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee demanded that suckling House Speaker Paul Ryan step down immediately unless he uses his power to “reject the importation” of Syrian refugees. Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio joined Carson in shutting the door on Syrian refugees, though security expert Richard Clarke pointed out that Rubio wouldn’t be in the U.S. running for president had it not been for this country’s willingness to accept refugees such as Rubio’s family fleeing from Cuba. Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina has already been on record suggesting that the U.S. has already done its “fair share” in accepting Syrian refugees and shouldn’t relax its criteria for vetting refugees, though it isn’t clear that anyone has called for that. Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz joined Jeb Bush in being willing to keep the door open for Syrian refugees, but only Christian Syrians, arguing that there is “no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” Long on record against Syrian refugees, presidential candidate Donald Trump doubled down on his opposition, declaring that Syrian refugees could be “one of the great Trojan horses.”

Syrian refugees are now embedded in state political campaigns, too. Picking up on Governor Jindal’s hysteria about two Syrian families in the New Orleans area brought in by Catholic Charities, the two candidates running to succeed the term-limited Jindal, Republican senator David Vitter followed by Democratic state representative John Bel Edwards, called for a halt to Syrian refugees in Louisiana. Largely seen as behind his Democratic opponent in the polls, Vitter was quick to pick up the Syrian refugee issue for political consumption to revive what might have been a flagging campaign.

This is one of those rare moments in history when a humanitarian gesture by the U.S. government has become a divisive political issue. It isn’t hard to see through the veneer of the politicians; this antagonism is not just aimed at bringing Syrian refugee resettlement to a halt, but throwing a monkey wrench into the nation’s entire refugee process, which, if it were allowed to continue, could bring in all of 85,000 asylum-seekers next year, of whom perhaps 10,000 might be Syrians if they were to make it through the vetting process.

It also isn’t difficult to see how this plays into the hands of the terrorists, who are hungry for evidence that secular societies in the West will discriminate against Muslims. Several accounts indicate that the Syrian passport found with the body of one of the Paris attackers was a fake, perhaps a product of the black market in Syrian passports currently thriving in Turkey. The attacker posed as a Syrian refugee making his way through Greece, whose bankrupt government conducts scant vetting of refugees before it passes them along to other countries, not a whit like the in-depth vetting that the U.S. conducts in this country’s refugee program. In fact, the same Turkish forger provided an identical Syrian passport to a man who was just arrested in Serbia. Nonetheless, the knee-jerk reactions of U.S. politicians to victimize Syrian refugees feeds into the apocalyptic worldview of ISIS that their cause is a fight against Christians and other apostates, and the Christian west is out to attack, demonize, and marginalize Islam. These politicians are giving ISIS exactly the sustenance its heinous ideology needs.

Contrast the greater and lesser degrees of hostility directed at Syrian refugees with the absolutely gruesome pictures of dead bodies piling up in mortuaries on Greek islands because local doctors can’t keep up with the paperwork on Samos or have run out of places to bury them on the island of Lesbos. Perhaps more immediate than piles of stored corpses was last week’s news, not covered in the American press it seems, of at least 18 refugees who drowned when their boat sank on the way to Lesbos. Among the dead were seven children. The nationalities of the dead refugees were not immediately known.

It might be surprising to discover that the strongest and most coherent statement explaining the rationale for continuing to accept Syrian refugees was just issued by the libertarian Niskanen Center think tank. In brief, the Niskanen blog post raised several reasons for this country’s openness to Syrian refugees even after the Paris terrorism:

  • In the history of the U.S. refugee program with the multi-stage vetting process that is employed, “not one [admitted refugee] has committed an act of terrorism in the U.S.”
  • Contrary to Carson’s contention that it would be “malpractice” for terrorists not to infiltrate the refugee process, Niskanen suggests that the refugee process is “the single most difficult way to come to the U.S.” If terrorists wanted to come, they would do what the 9/11 hijackers did, obtaining student or tourist visas, and avoid the complications of the refugee resettlement vetting.
  • The Niskanen paper indicates that ISIS views the refugees as traitors. The refugees, for their part, are trying to escape the barbarity of both ISIS and the Assad government. The Niskanen paper suggests that “turning away Syrian refugees plays into ISIS’s hands.” By our estimate, turning them away also condemns many to misery and death.

Niskanen also raises a point that we have raised before. Our nation’s openness to refugees in the past has been troubled during different parts of our history. Remember that the U.S. sent 900 Jewish refugees on the S.S. St. Louis back to Europe in 1939 after denying the ship access to ports in Florida, resulting in the deaths of at least 250 of the passengers. Now, many of our leading politicians are going to turn away more refugees who might succumb to the murderous ISIS terrorists.

This is yet another of those issues that nonprofits might hope to dodge as “not their issue,” someone else’s concern and priority, but it’s not. If the U.S. slams the door on desperate Syrian refugees, the nonprofit sector that claims to represent openness, inclusion, and democracy will find its credibility seriously damaged should it fail to do whatever it can to confront the politicians using fear and hatred as a tool for political advancement.—Rick Cohen