8 Misguided Arguments on Refugees and Terrorism
Our dumbed-down debate distracts us from reforms that could attract consensus.
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.”