Paris Terrorist Attacks Lead to Backlash Against Syrian Refugees in U.S.

Photo courtesy of Freedom House, Flickr

Photo courtesy of Freedom House, Flickr

As the Syrian civil war rages on and ISIL continues to wreak havoc in the Middle East, over four million Syrian refugees have fled their homes seeking safety in refugee camps and other countries around the world. European leaders continue to strive for workable solutions as they struggle to respond to the thousands of refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, who have overwhelmed them in recent months. President Obama has directed the United States to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next fiscal year (six times more than the previous year). Yet in the aftermath of a devastating series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, the reaction of many in the U.S. has been to attack Syrian refugees and the U.S. refugee resettlement process, often with little factual basis for their claims.

Fears that ISIL members and other terrorists will pose as refugees in order to infiltrate the U.S. originated from early reports that the passport of a Syrian refugee had been found on or near the body of one of the suicide bombers in Paris. There are several reasons to doubt that the passport actually belonged to the bomber, and to date every one of the named perpetrators of the Paris attacks has been a European citizen with European passports. But that has not stopped U.S. politicians, primarily Republicans, from exploiting anti-refugee fears and advocating for significant changes in U.S. refugee policy.

In the week immediately following the Paris attacks, governors from more than half of the 50 U.S. states issued statements purporting to prohibit Syrian refugees from resettling in their states.[1] Many declared that they would not accept Syrians until the federal government could “provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety” (Gov. Larry Hogan, MD) and/or “pending a full review of our country’s acceptance and security processes by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security” (Gov. Bruce Rauner, IL). Last week, Texas became the first state to take legal action on the issue, filing a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to prevent a family of Syrian refugees from resettling in the state.

Unfortunately for these governors, as legal experts have pointed out, they have no authority to block the resettlement of certain refugees into their states. In its lawsuit, Texas correctly contends that the Refugee Act of 1980 requires the federal government to “consult regularly with States,” as well as localities and nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies, during the refugee resettlement process. However, the Act also designates the federal government as the sole entity responsible for the refugee resettlement program and does not give states, or any other group, veto power over its decisions. As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held since the late 1800s, immigration matters, including refugee policy, are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government, as part of its inherent power to manage the country’s foreign relations.

Echoing the concerns of the governors calling for a review of U.S. security protocols in the refugee admission process, the Republican-led House of Representatives jumped into the fray and passed the “American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act” or “American SAFE Act” (H.R. 4038). The bill singles out refugees from Syria and Iraq, as well as anyone applying for admission to the U.S. as a refugee who has set foot in either of those countries at any time on or after March 1, 2011 (the approximate start of the Syrian civil war). Before such a refugee can be admitted to the U.S., the bill requires that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) “unanimously concur[]” and “certif[y] to the appropriate Congressional Committees” (of which there are twelve named in the bill) that s/he “is not a threat to the security of the United States.”

Reading the language in this bill and the concerns of these governors may lead one to conclude that, under current procedures, refugees are routinely admitted to the U.S. with either no background checks or only minimal screenings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before admission into the U.S., refugees undergo multiple security screenings and biometric checks, including an enhanced interagency review for Syrian applicants, as well as interviews with both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and U.S. DHS personnel—a process which, for Syrians, takes an average of two years, sometimes more, before admission to the U.S. As recently as 2011, new security measures were so stringent and took so long that prior clearances expired, forcing desperate refugees to experience even longer processing delays. A senior State Department official rightly described the current process as “the most rigorous screening and security vetting of any category of traveler to the United States.”

While it should go without saying that national security is and always should be of utmost importance when admitting anyone into the country, the additional burdens imposed by H.R. 4038 are costly and unnecessary additions to an already rigorous screening system. It should also be noted that, of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since September 11, 2001, exactly three, or approximately .00038%, have been arrested on terrorism charges: two Iraqis planned to send money and weapons to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and an Uzbek man plotted to support an Islamist organization in Uzbekistan.[2] Not a single act of terrorism has been committed in the United States by a refugee.

Despite these facts, fear-mongering has replaced objective reasoning in recent weeks. Most of the Republican candidates in the 2016 Presidential race would either eliminate or severely restrict Syrian refugee resettlement in the U.S. Some, such as Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, are even pushing for the U.S. to engage in unconstitutional religious discrimination and only resettle Christian Syrians while rejecting all Muslims. And just this week, Donald Trump called for a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

All of these reactions, while perhaps understandable as immediate responses, fail to hold up under scrutiny from multiple angles. Besides the fact that, as already discussed, many of these schemes are illegal, they also fail to take into account basic geography. The arduous process that refugees undergo to gain admission to the U.S. is vastly different from the manner in which Syrian and other refugees are currently entering Europe, where would-be refugees can travel much shorter distances to reach safe territory before being fingerprinted and released to travel throughout the continent without showing identity documents. As the Guardian noted, in contrast to the U.S. admission process, “a migrant could then easily reach Paris without ever being given a background check by any government official.”

Not to mention the ought-to-be obvious moral and humanitarian considerations that must play a part in any discussion of refugees. By definition, refugees are those fleeing persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. They are not leaving their homes by choice, but rather because they literally have no other options. Syrian refugees have faced unimaginable horrors: government forces indiscriminately killing civilians, a president who has targeted them with bombs and chemical weapons, and the rise of the ruthless terrorists of ISIL. While many fear that Syrian Muslims are ISIL sympathizers intent on doing us harm, most of ISIL’s victims are in fact Muslims themselves, and those who are fleeing Syria are the most likely to reject ISIL’s violent extremist views. They have themselves lived through the same sort of terror perpetrated in Paris and now need protection just like the rest of us.

The House’s attempt to “strengthen” already strong security measures and 31 governors’ efforts to ban Syrian refugees from their states might not achieve their intended goals. But what they do accomplish is to send the message that there is no place in American society for Muslims. Making life miserable for Muslims in the U.S., whether by withholding support for refugee integration programs or through the perpetuation of dangerous, hurtful rhetoric, leads to the disaffection and isolation that can make individuals more susceptible to recruitment by extremist terrorists in the first place.

We must remember that this is not a zero sum game. The United States can continue to welcome refugees while also continuing to protect our own security. We must do both, rather than sacrificing one for the other.

[1] At last count, 31 state governors had stated they would not permit Syrian refugee resettlement: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—all but one of which (NH) are led by Republic governors.

[2] While the third individual also claimed to be planning an attack on U.S. soil, his plans were deemed “barely credible,” and he was acquitted of those charges. Many have also erroneously asserted that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers responsible for the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, were refugees; but in fact, their family entered the U.S. on tourist visas when the brothers were just children.

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