8 Misguided Arguments on Refugees and Terrorism

October 17, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: RefugeesMigrationUnited StatesHumanitarianismSyria

8 Misguided Arguments on Refugees and Terrorism

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

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.

Joseph Cassidy is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, focusing on humanitarian, multilateral, and international law issues. Previously, he was a State Department foreign service officer, with overseas tours in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and South America.

Image: Women and children among Syrian refugees at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Wikimedia Commons/Mtsyslav Chernov