Does Keeping Out Syrian Refugees Make Us Less Safe?

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.

  • We make young American Muslims more susceptible to jihadist recruitment. "See, you're loyal to a country that isn't loyal to you and I can prove it." We raise the risk of creating home-grown terrorists.
  • We make a community feel less accepted and, by extension, less loyal to the United States. That could mean less automatic cooperation with law enforcement, increasing the risk that terrorist plans actually reach the stage of execution.
  • We alienate every Muslim country in the world, including those we need. That applies to both governments and citizenry. They all watch CNN and Al Jazeera and are extremely aware of all these American politicians portraying Muslims as dangerous and untrustworthy. How do you think this plays out if, say, Iran is trying to talk another Muslim nation out of cooperating with us? How do you think this plays out in terms of nuclear non-proliferation?
  • We make terrorist recruitment easier overseas.
  • We damage our international moral standing in general. While Germany tries to integrate hundreds of thousands of refugees, we balk at a tiny fraction of that number when we have greater resources. There are an awful lot of times when the United States asks other countries for cooperation, cooperation that often entails sacrifices. A lot of these countries are democratic and if we look hypocritical asking for help, their populations will balk at allowing it without electoral consequences. When our requests for help are military, the result of refusal is more American servicemen and women placed in harm's way. 
  • We increase the influence of the jihadists. They want the world to believe that they speak for Islam. We are helping them sell that message, which is exactly counter to our interests.

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. 

Views: 937

Comment by JMac1949 Today on November 21, 2015 at 1:00pm

The Gubernatorial and Tea Party Republican congressional objections to the immigration of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees is nothing new, it's just public proclamation of prejudice in an effort to troll for votes of their frightened ignorant constituents.  For what it's worth after 9/11 George W. Bush at least had the balls to call out this prejudice for what it was.   Sighs and shakes his head, ;-(

Comment by koshersalaami on November 21, 2015 at 1:08pm

I have to admit that I'm rather frightened that while W did have the balls to call out this prejudice for what it was, Jeb is suggesting just allowing Christians in. We're really looking at a Worse Bush? That is a frightening thought. 

Comment by JMac1949 Today on November 21, 2015 at 1:17pm

I seriously doubt that JEB will win the nomination.  I'd be scared of Donald Trump as a candidate if it weren't for the probability that he'd very likely lose in a landslide because a significant number of Christian fundamentalists are in favor of allowing Muslims to immigrate as refugees.  That and the fact that they find Trump a profane antithesis of what they believe.

Comment by Safe Bet's Amy on November 21, 2015 at 1:21pm

At the end of WWII hundreds of thousands of European refugees were brought to the US.  Did the US pass laws to prevent them coming because there might be a few Nazis mixed in?  The answer is "no they didn't".  (In fact they passed laws permitting it and there WERE Nazis mixed in and they have been hunted down ever since.) Virtually all of them became "Good, proud Americans".

In 1950s, at the end of the Hungary Revolution, tens of thousands of Hungarian refugees were brought to the US.  Did the US pass laws to prevent them coming because there might be a few communists mixed in?  The answer is "no they didn't".  Virtually all of them became "Good, proud Americans".

In the 1970s, during the last days of the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees were brought to the US.  Did the US pass laws to prevent them coming because there might be a few Viet Cong mixed in?  The answer is "no they didn't".  Virtually all of them became "Good, proud Americans".

In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees were allowed into the US.  Did the US pass laws to prevent them coming because there might be a few Castronistas mixed in?  The answer is "no they didn't".  Virtually all of them became "Good, proud Americans".

In the 1990s, thousands of Haitian refugees were allowed into the US.  Did the US pass laws to prevent them coming because there might be a few Baby doc supporters mixed in?  The answer is "no they didn't".  Virtually all of them became "Good, proud Americans".

There are a LOT of other examples of the US accepting people who were "others", either do to race and/or political/religious beliefs.  The ONLY difference, that I can see anyways, is that the Syrian refugees are trying to arrive at the beginning of a very contentious election cycle and all of the fascist assholes are having a "me a big, strong, tough guy" chest thumping competition. (and I include Ms. "Never Met A War I Didn't Like" War Monger Killary Klinton in their numbers)

Comment by koshersalaami on November 21, 2015 at 1:57pm

I think that these politicians would argue that there's another difference. There's a reason I disagree with them, but I'll get to that in a minute.

The difference between someone showing up from ISIS or Al Qaida is that in the Nazi, Hungarian commie, Viet Cong, Cuban commie, and Haitian Duvalieriste (?) cases, we'd have expected those guys to have stayed hidden and perhaps derived advantages they didn't deserve but not to kill a lot of civilians or take out a national monument or two. 

Now, the flip side of that is that in the Hungarian, Cuban, and Viet Cong examples, the US was still involved in the Cold War. An agent over here had the potential to do a lot more damage than a terrorist because the wrong military secrets could change the course of a war. 

For that reason, I think your examples are valid though I don't think the Republican candidates would. 

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on November 21, 2015 at 2:06pm

It's been a very disappointing week.

Comment by JMac1949 Today on November 21, 2015 at 2:10pm

Actually after WWII certain Nazi's, Wernher von Braunand his gang, got a get out of jail free card and their immigration to the USA was a major league fast track!  That's what happenas when you know how to make things that go whoosh boom.

Comment by koshersalaami on November 21, 2015 at 2:16pm

Oh absolutely

That was done in part because we needed the technology and in part because the scientists were not considered hard core ideologues. 

As to whether this has been a disappointing week, that remains to be seen. Even a lot in the GOP think Trump went over the top with his tracking Muslims crap and it's good to know some of those guys have limits. It's good to know that Bush made the distinction between allowing Christian Syrians and Muslim Syrians in, so we know what kind of guy he really is - he found a way to actually be outclassed by his older brother, which isn't easy. We may have revealed things this week which will stop peoples' electoral chances later. 

Comment by Hannu Virtanen on November 21, 2015 at 3:05pm

We have got similar politicians  as Jeb Bush in Finland, too, to suggest that we should take only Christian refugees from Syria. But that idea fortunately lost.

Comment by Zanelle on November 21, 2015 at 5:21pm

I just wish Syria hadn't progressed to this point.  It makes me not trust any system that cant keep all people safe.  What does the future hold?


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