What are the likely consequences of keeping Syrian refugees out of the US, particularly Muslim refugees?
There has been some talk about only allowing Christian refugees in, but the overwhelming majority of refugees are Muslim and such a distinction involves religious discrimination in ways that run counter to the Constitution. The rest of this discussion will be focused specifically on Muslim refugees as those worried about terrorism are specifically worried about terrorism in the name of Islam.
What the House just passed, requiring Homeland Security to screen every immigrant so closely as to be able to reasonably guarantee that he or she isn't a terrorist, would effectively keep Syrian refugees out the US because we don't have the manpower to do that kind of screening. President Obama has quite sensibly said he'd veto this. After all, if the House wants to vote to keep Syrian refugees out, let them say so.
I've heard two objections to letting Syrian refugees in:
1. We shouldn't be giving help to refugees that we aren't giving to our own citizens.
Ok, but that applies to any refugees we've ever allowed in and helped. It's also a disingenuous argument in that if we wanted to help our own citizens that way we presumably already would be. I would argue that we should, but that's a tangent outside the scope of this post. I've already written on that topic extensively.
2. We could be allowing terrorists in.
Yes, we could, though that is far from the most likely immigration channel for terrorists. The Arab terrorists from overseas who have struck here have entered this country on student and tourist visas, which is way easier than spending months waiting at European borders in the cold. That is important not only because of how they've come but because of who they've been. Those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and for the recent attacks in Paris were overwhelmingly European citizens.
This is not an accident. To understand the risks of admitting refugees and of refusing refugees (both involve risks), one has to understand the difference between the Arab immigration experience in Europe and in the United States. The difference, and it's one I've discussed a whole lot before, is that in Europe national identity is very tribal, whereas in the United States it isn't tribal at all. Arabs born in France whose parents were also born in France typically have trouble finding jobs because there's a difference between being a French citizen and being French. Citizenship does not equal acceptance, and this rejection fosters a whole lot of very bitter resentment. The American pattern is vastly different - because America's population is almost completely comprised of the descendants of immigrants, acceptance of immigrants and especially the children of immigrants born here as Americans is nearly universal. The result is that immigrants to the United States are typically grateful to the United States (in that their lives are typically safer, more prosperous, less humiliating, and freer here than they were wherever they came from) and they typically become fiercely loyal citizens.
If we look at Syrian refugees fleeing the threat of death, how do you think the overwhelming majority will react to the United States if we take them in?
You might notice that there haven't been a whole lot of terrorist incidents in the US perpetrated by American Muslims. There are two reasons for this. One is quite simply that American Muslims don't tend to be as angry at the US as European immigrant Muslims (as distinguished from Bosnians) tend to be at Europe, their countries, and even the US.
There are still those who do get angry, particularly impressionable young people successfully recruited by fundamentalists who view the US as evil because it isn't fundamentalist Muslim. But getting angry and even being inclined toward terrorism doesn't mean perpetrating terrorism successfully, because they're surrounded by American Muslims who are informed about what they're doing and are inclined to stop them in one way or another because they view terrorism against their country as evil. This is the second reason. The good will of the community toward law enforcement in this area is critical.
So, the risk of bringing Syrian refugees in substantial numbers into the United States is that the refugee population could be hiding some terrorists.
What are the risks of refusing to bring Syrian refugees in?
In order to assess that, the main thing we need to keep in mind is that the refusal is intrinsically tied to a whole lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric, including recent remarks by at least a few Republican Presidential candidates involving everything from tracking American Muslims to allowing Christian Syrians into the country but not Muslim Syrians.
Yes, by refusing to take in Syrian refugees, we might keep a few terrorists out. However, as I have written often over the years, for any given action it is necessary to ask two questions and an awful lot of people forget to ask the second question.
What does it cost us if we do this?
What does it cost us if we don't do this?
Don't ever assume that inaction is free. That assumption is the road to stupid decisions.
Like this one.