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8 Misguided Arguments on Refugees and Terrorism

Joseph Cassidy

Our dumbed-down debate distracts us from reforms that could attract consensus.

8 Misguided Arguments on Refugees and Terrorism

Refugee resettlement in the United States is as politicized as it has been in generations. That is a shame, because our current dumbed-down debate distracts us from reforms that could attract consensus support, decreasing security risks while ensuring the program’s viability.

To detractors, the current system endangers American lives and undermines democracy; the program’s architects are well-meaning, but naïve and dismissive of security concerns. For proponents, resettling refugees is a moral obligation and an unalloyed national good; critics are frightened, if not xenophobic and selfish.

Following the September 18 terrorist attacks in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota—and news reports that perpetrators Ahmad Khan Rahami and Dahir Adan were immigrants—the internet seethed with both denunciations and formulaic defenses of refugee resettlement in the United States.

In response to the administration’s September 15 announcement that it plans to resettle 110,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017, including a “significantly higher number” of Syrian refugees (than the approximately 13,000 resettled in FY 2016), some members of Congress may again oppose full funding of resettlement-related Department of State and Department of Homeland Security operations.

At least thirty-one governors have now come out in opposition to resettlement of Syrian refugees, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who announced September 30 that Texas (which has the second largest program in the country) would end its cooperation with the federal program.

People on both sides are guilty of misstatements and exaggerations. Since we seem to be headed toward another round of rhetorical artillery from both sides, here are eight common positions taken by defenders or detractors of refugee resettlement, and why they are misguided:

1. “The United States Must Resettle (Its Fair Share of) Refugees.”

Given the scope of the current global refugee crisis, it is not surprising that refugee advocates are saying the United States has a duty to raise its resettlement quotas. But what is America’s “fair share?”

Resettlement of refugees is not obligatory under international or domestic law. While the obligation not to return people to persecution in their home countries (“non-refoulement”) is the most important provision of the 1951 Refugee Convention (and 1967 Protocol, which the United States has ratified), once a refugee reaches a first country of asylum, “third countries” do not have an obligation to provide onward immigration.

We can as a matter of policy slow or halt refugee admissions from certain countries or end the program entirely. Our humanitarian tradition is something Americans should be proud of, but it is not the only legitimate national interest.

The U.S. government also has responsibility for public safety, government budgets, diplomatic interests, economic prosperity, and promoting “general welfare” in the broadest sense. If resettlement of refugees, in whole or in part, was found inconsistent with those other equities, longstanding practice could be changed. Political debate tends to focus on two numerical decisions—the administration’s fiscal year refugee resettlement goal, including country-specific targets, and Congressional funding for associated State Department and Department of Homeland Security implementation. Thus, Congressional hearings that feature administration officials explaining the program and being asked tough questions (like the September 28 hearing chaired by Senator Sessions) are vital and appropriate, even when they are messy and disputatious.

Calls by foreign leaders, UN officials, or refugee advocates for the United States to take a “fair share” (variously defined) of the world’s refugees are requests, not directives, and some of those demands come from governments seeking to evade their own humanitarian responsibilities. One tendentious criticism sometimes lobbed at the United States is that we do not host refugees in the same proportion, when compared to our overall population, as other refugee host countries.

The reason we don’t have millions of refugees sitting in camps to be counted is that we ensure resettled refugees (more than 3 million through the formal resettlement pipeline since 1975) get legal status immediately and can apply for citizenship after five years in the country. And that 3 million does not include millions more who ultimately regularize their legal status after being granted “temporary protected status” in the United States in response to dire conditions in their home country; entering on tourist, work, or student visas and claiming asylum; or coming to America unlawfully and being granted permission to stay.

Countries that refuse to allow resident refugees to work, go to school, or obtain broader political rights may be able to claim generations of refugees, but their behavior does not qualify as humanitarian. The reason America does not host more “refugees” than some other countries is that we make so many of them citizens.

2. “We Don’t Need Refugees.”

The choice whether to continue, change, or end the resettlement program is ours. If we are wise, however, we won’t make radical changes to the program without careful consideration of both risks and benefits, including a review of why resettlement of refugees has enjoyed strong bipartisan support historically, has been adequately funded by Congress, and has been actively solicited by officials from cities and regions around the country, particularly those with aging populations and slumping economies.

America has provided legal status and a path to citizenship for millions of the most vulnerable refugees since the end of the Second World War, rescuing them directly from their oppressive home countries or from countries to which they fled. It is not just altruism. Those new Americans made our country stronger and more successful, as is true of immigration generally.

With a declining birthrate (1.86 births per woman, according to the World Bank, well below the commonly cited 2.1 “population replacement rate”), the United States needs immigrants to avoid population decline and the associated economic and geopolitical harm. Immigrants, including resettled refugees, disproportionately take dangerous, unpleasant, poorly paid jobs (think livestock slaughter) that are necessary but less sought after by native-born Americans.

Immigrants are also well represented among the most successful Americans. For example, more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. And American business people with ties to other countries enhance the commercial market access of our exports.

To be sure, the massive number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide today derives from the international community’s inability to solve the root causes of mass human displacement—conflict, disaster, oppression, and chaos. But there are systemic problems as well, which can be fixed.

Refugee resettlement is also a useful “soft power” foreign policy tool. America’s willingness to welcome refugees of many faiths and nationalities undercuts the propaganda of our enemies—whether states or non-state entities—alleging (mendaciously, but nevertheless loudly) that the United States is xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, selfish, irresponsible, and hypocritical.

Our ongoing struggle with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS looks likely to include a multi-generational ideological competition for the minds of those who could be, but might not be, radicalized to support terror attacks against us. Our reputation for humanity may be as important a determinative of success in that war as our military might.

Finally, in our humanitarian diplomacy, we often leverage our resettlement efforts to help resolve longstanding humanitarian crises and persuade other countries to share the humanitarian burden. For example, our resettlement of large numbers of ethnic Nepalis forced out of Bhutan was the trigger to substantially resolve this longstanding and complicated humanitarian and political impasse. Resettlement is a foreign policy tool useful in defusing potential crises. We should think carefully before giving it up.

3. “We Should Not Institute An Ideological/Religious Litmus Test for Immigrants”

Critics of calls from presidential candidate Donald Trump and his supporters to ban all Muslim immigration (or at least immigration from Muslim majority countries), have termed it, among other things, “The World’s Dumbest Idea.”

Their philosophical objections are often grounded upon a reverence for constitutional protections for religious liberty and appreciation of the history of immigrants coming to America in search of religious freedom. In his December 6 address following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, President Obama said, “It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country.” Congressman Don Beyer introduced a bill (HR5207) to try to preempt the Trump ban containing a “Prohibition on Denying Admission [to the United States] Because of Religion.”

It is not clear why Obama and Beyer think inquiries into religious or related ideological factors are inappropriate in the context of security reviews, however, or why they would reject the view that some beliefs are so extreme and dangerous that they would be sufficient themselves to constitute a justifiable bar to entry of refugees or other intending immigrants. From long, sad experience, we know how often the most pathological human hatreds have been exacerbated by perverted strains of religious fervor.

To say the obvious, such vetting should apply to people of all religious faiths, not just Islam (as well as people of no professed faith). Like most foreign policy professionals, I can easily call to mind extremists who claim to be adherents of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and other religions whose beliefs are sufficiently violent and dangerous that I would not import them.

The idea of an ideological/religious test overseen by government officials may make Americans squirm uncomfortably about thought police, but we already have immigration-related ineligibilitiesconcerning totalitarian party membership and incitement to terrorism (i.e., not just dangerous acts.)

If enforcement standards targeted not broadly held religious faiths themselves, but manifestations of faith that are dangerous or incompatible with democratic pluralism, an ideological/religious test could exist comfortably alongside constitutional protections. (Some would even argue that the Constitution’s “no religious test” language does not apply to immigration law anyway.)

To go further, there are some religions mere adherence to which should be enough to bar someone from entry to the United States. Aum Shinrikyo, a death cult which perpetrated multiple weapons of mass destruction attacks on civilians and has been designated a foreign terrorist organization, is an example.

Assessment of the potential compatibility of the personal/political/religious views of those who will eventually become citizens is particularly important in America. Unlike in nation states built on ethnicity, our shared values constitute the sole source of American nationhood. It is not too much to expect that those allowed into our country pledge to be respectful of and faithful to our consensus human rights traditions.

Asylum seekers who take advantage of the freedom and safety America provides to attack Americans or aid our enemies are guilty of the worst perfidy and disloyalty. Those with views that are incompatible with America’s core principles, or who are unwilling to fight alongside fellow Americans to defend them against our enemies, should not be welcome.

4. “Islam is Unlike Other Religions, and So Muslim Immigrants Present a Particularly Grave Threat”

It is true that different religions have had varying historical relationships to political power and civil law. Shadi Hamid, for example, has argued that, given Muhammad’s role as both prophet and state builder, Islam does exist in greater tension with liberalism than does Christianity, whose founder Jesus was a dissident. It is worth recalling, however, that Christianity wielded political authority for centuries, and yet America’s Christian founders were still able to lay a strong foundation for a lasting secular democracy.

While explaining why Islam may be exceptional, Hamid risks discounting American exceptionalism. With the very first settlers from Europe came a belief that Americans are not bound by the hoary customs and hatreds of the Old World. Americans established the world’s first large scale democracy. We invented the concept of a melting pot national culture based on shared values. And we have successfully integrated waves of immigration in the face of initial nativist skepticism and resentment.

Something that should disquiet those arguing that Muslim immigration poses a unique threat to America is the similarity of such charges to earlier demagogic allegations that America was under existential threat by foreign ethnicities (e.g., Germans, Irish, Italians, Slavs, Chinese, Japanese) or strange religions (e.g., Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews.)

We too easily forget how controversial past immigration was (unless prodded by reminders like the film Gangs of New York) and how unfounded were those fears.

After all, anti-Catholic suspicions birthed a hateful but temporarily influential political party, the Know Nothings. And 170 years after the country’s founding, a Catholic candidate for President still felt compelled to assure voters he would not take orders from the Pope. Yet today, American Catholics are extraordinarily ordinary voters, lining up on all sides of political issues and voting in significant numbers for both major parties.

Exaggerated fears of Muslim immigration also underestimate the power of the American immigrant experience. Some of the Muslim refugees being resettled in America have already served as our battlefield comrades and allies, including in the war we jointly wage against terrorist groups like ISIS. All of them will enjoy freedoms and opportunities in America that are absent in their countries of origin.

The path to citizenship is meant to be normative, testing an immigrant’s commitment to this country while strengthening an understanding of the obligations of citizenship and the importance of being part of the national community. One useful improvement would be to extend the short duration of post-resettlement monitoring, which we count on to assess cultural assimilation, solve problems, and allow for monitoring of public safety-related issues.

American Muslims are doctors and nurses, entrepreneurs and inventors, public servants and war heroes, friends and neighbors. Being Muslim is compatible with being a loyal American, as the overwhelming number of American Muslims prove every day.

5. “Resettled Refugees Pose Little Terrorism Risk”

While the overwhelming number of Muslim-Americans, including resettled Muslim refugees, are loyal, some small proportion are not.

A recent report by the Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security stated that five percent of around 100 ISIS-related terrorist prosecutions in the United States involved resettled refugees or other asylees. Senator Sessions (R-AL) released a report on August 16, which charges that forty people arrested for terrorism-related offenses had received asylum in the United States (through refugees resettlement or similar categories like “Special Immigrant Visas” for those in U.S. Government employment in Iraq and Afghanistan) and provides detailed information on twenty of them.

Some arguments made by resettlement proponents have undermined their own credibility. For example, the widely circulated tweet based on an Economist story—that “750,000 refugees have been resettled in America since 9/11. Not one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges”—was debunked by the Washington Post as both inaccurate and misleading.

More self-destructive than factual errors, which are somewhat understandable given fast moving events and the complicated subject matter, are attempts to employ convoluted verbal formulations or cherry pick statistics and categories in an attempt to understate the risk.

At the September 28 Senate hearing, for example, a government witness stated that since 9/11, not a single act of terrorist violence has been committed by someone who went through refugee security screening. Even aside from the question of whether a proper statement of risk should include only those who succeed in terrorist attacks, not those who try, the formulation is too clever. For most Americans, explanations that Rahami entered the United States at the age of two when his family received asylum in 1995 or that the Tsarnaev brothers entered the country on tourist visas and only after arrival were accorded refugee status, are semantic distinctions.

Finally, there is in the refugee advocate community an insufficient appreciation of the counterproductive effects of arguments that sound a lot like, “Yes, well, refugee terrorists might launch some attacks, but they won’t kill that many Americans.” Especially for Americans who don’t know much about the nature of U.S. vetting but who harbor fears that the government will not administer it competently, such arguments do not assuage fears that terrorists will exploit vulnerabilities in the system.

6. “There is No Way to Guarantee Refugees Won’t Pose a Threat”

This is a truism—senior administration officials from Homeland Security Secretary Johnson to FBI Director Comey have acknowledged as much—but it is not the only information relevant to a good public policy decision on refugee resettlement.

There are legitimate questions about how we can adequately vet applicants from countries with limited national information or whose governments will not share data. In light of reports the FBI may have failed to adequately follow up on warnings from Rahami’s father and that the Department of Homeland Security granted citizenship to 750 people in deportation proceedings, some are skeptical of government competence.

Security vetting of refugees depends on fallible human judgment, and even good initial decisions can be undone if someone is radicalized in the United States later. But this is also true of business and tourist visa applications as well as port of entry screening of travelers coming to the United States on the visa waiver program—and serious people would not propose we restrict all travel to the United States.

Though we don’t often talk about it in such terms, there is risk involved in just about every government decision or program. Creation of the Interstate Highway System was enormously beneficial economically and culturally, but increased high speed vehicular crash fatalities. Second amendment protections safeguard private gun ownership but also mean that people contemplating crime, terrorism, domestic violence, or suicide have greater access to deadly weapons. Maintaining embassies abroad can create targets for terrorists.

The risks we incur, however, do not undercut arguments in favor of highways, the Bill of Rights, or U.S. diplomacy.

The overwhelming number of resettled refugees pose no threat and assimilate successfully. Can we demand a high degree of certainty that applicants for entry to the U.S. pose no danger? You bet, and the debate about what extra measures might be required should include input from worried citizens, not just bureaucrats and refugee advocates.

But it is also worth noting that refugee resettlement employed in the right fashion can be a tool to reduce international tension and conflict from which other threats to our safety can emerge.

We have a long term national security interest in making sure Syrian refugees (and others) are not trapped in squalid, hopeless conditions, where the embers of resentment can be fanned by extremists into fiery, anti-American hatred. Sometimes not addressing refugee issues can be dangerous too.

The rhetorical demand for a money-back guarantee on refugee vetting is a straw man argument. Some wisdom from Michael J. Fox: “Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”

7. “Calls for Even a Slowdown in Resettlement Are Racist or Islamophobic”

Attacking the purported evil motives of people with different policy views seems to have become America’s chosen political pastime. While racists or Islamophobes may also oppose resettlement of Muslim refugees, we should not automatically assume that critics of the administration’s plans to significantly increase resettlement quotas overall, and particularly of Syrian refugees, are hateful. Such accusations are not just unfair, they are unwise, because they poison the atmosphere for problem solving and degrade bipartisan support for resettlement itself.

It is not irresponsible to consider carefully the potential cultural suitability of those we propose to allow into the United States. Hate crimes against LGBT people or sexual or gender based violence (as with so called “honor killings” or female genital mutilation) are unacceptable, whether committed by a citizen by birth or an immigrant. In vetting, cultural views matter (and should).

Congressional leaders, especially, should have wide latitude to probe and question the administration about its processes and its decision making. That pressure is the best way to ensure programmatic improvements. To add the obvious, a robust dialogue between the Congress and administration is also essential to adequate funding of the resettlement program itself.

It is true that recent large waves of migration—e.g., Southeast Asians in the 1970s, Soviet Jews in the ’80s, Cubans since the 1960s—did not receive the scrutiny that current asylum seekers receive. On the other hand, contemporary Muslim immigration is taking place in a context of our global conflict with terrorists who claim to be acting in defense of Islam and on behalf of Muslims (even if we know that is a lie.)

We should be careful that adjustments in immigration and asylum policies are driven by security threats and not just directed at broad classes of people. Just as the atrocity perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City in 1995 should not prompt widespread distrust and resentment of Scottish-Americans, we need to be careful about stigmatizing all Muslims in the United States. To do so would be unfair. It would also handicap our counter-terrorism efforts by alienating potential informants and, by casting our dragnet so wide, squander national security resources.

If contentious debate helps the U.S. government to sharpen security vetting of applicants and reassure jittery citizens, however, it is not unprincipled. Greater transparency could even help buttress popular support for refugee resettlement. Proponents of resettlement must understand how damaging it will be to the program if there are even rare cases of resettled refugees committing terrorist acts.

8. “We Should Help Americans, Not Foreigners.”

Legally and ethically, a U.S. government official’s primary duty in carrying out his or her responsibilities is to the welfare of American citizens, not citizens of other countries. But the current resurgence of the slogan “America First” is an indication those who employ it do not understand its odious initial use, or don’t mind.

While some elements of international relations are zero sum, sometimes helping foreigners is helping ourselves. The Marshall Plan was an expensive nation building project abroad, the kind abhorred by many from across the political spectrum today, but it was also an investment in our own national success. It strengthened our geopolitical position, fortified our military alliances, spread our values, and created markets for our exports.

A world organized around American principles, and not those of our ideological enemies or geopolitical competitors, is a world in which Americans can flourish.

Crises that cause mass displacement of people, on the other hand, are symptoms of fundamental problems inimical to America’s interests. That is why ameliorating suffering in crisis-wracked parts of the world, including a well-managed program to resettle some of the most vulnerable refugees, can make Americans safer and our country stronger by helping to address root causes of conflict.

Most Americans would agree that we have humanitarian/moral/religious obligations to help victims where we can, consistent with our abilities. The United States has an admirable record of funding humanitarian operations abroad; of using our military and civilian assets to assist victims of natural disaster or conflict; and of offering temporary protection, asylum, or refugee resettlement to foreigners in danger.

That sense of global responsibility is part of what makes America exceptional. It is one of the foundations of American global leadership. It is both principled and smart.

How Smart Solutions Can Bridge the Gap

People who think security and humanitarian interests are inevitably mutually exclusive suffer from a failure of imagination.

National security arguments for refugee resettlement are strong and compelling. Done right, by weeding out those who are dangerous or unsuitable and ensuring successful assimilation, resettlement strengthens this country and helps to address foreign sources of instability that ultimately threaten us.

The humanitarian arguments for refugee resettlement, including of Syrians, are also strong and compelling. Even after seeing them many times, I cannot look at photos of Alan Kurdi, lying drowned on that Turkish beach, or Omran Daqneesh, sitting shocked and afraid in an ambulance seat in Aleppo, without stomach-churning sadness. There are wrongs in the world that America cannot abide and remain true to itself.

But criticisms of the current resettlement system program are not unfounded. It is neither as secure nor as transformative as it should be.

There are programmatic adjustments to refugee resettlement in the United States, and broader reforms of the international refugee system itself, that I believe could attract near consensus support in the United States. One unfortunate consequence of the current acrimonious debate, however, is that all the shouting and speechifying makes careful, nuanced discussion less likely.

We must not be paralyzed. To be sure, the massive number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide today derives from the international community’s inability to solve the root causes of mass human displacement—conflict, disaster, oppression, and chaos. But there are systemic problems as well, which can be fixed.

The humanitarian community and its chief supporters in advanced, democratic nations focus disproportionately on providing refugee assistance and insufficiently on maximizing refugee utility; too much on assuaging countries of destination and not enough on curbing countries of origin; too much on the sovereignty of evil governments and too little on confronting impunity and instability; too much on the pressure valve of resettlement and not enough on creating conditions for sustainable refugee return.

I will spend the next year at the Wilson Center exploring some of these issues in detail. I would welcome as broad a dialogue as we can organize and as many good ideas and as we can collectively discover.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published on The National Interest.

About the Author

Joseph Cassidy

Joseph Cassidy

Former Fellow;
Former Director for Policy, Regional, and Functional Organizations, International Organizations Bureau, U.S. Department of State
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