National Security & Defense

Before Welcoming Thousands of Syrian Refugees, We Should Consider What Somali Immigrants Have Brought the U.S.

With apologies to Golden Gopher fans, Minneapolis, Minn., is probably not most people’s idea of a destination city. Unless, that is, the traveler in question is Somali, in which case Minneapolis is the closest thing this side of the Atlantic to home.

Thanks to American refugee-resettlement and family-reunification policies, Minneapolis has the dubious distinction of hosting the largest concentration of Somalis in the United States — some 30,000, according to census records, though Somali leaders say that underestimates the population by tens of thousands. The influx began in the 1980s, as Somalia succumbed to internal violence, and continued through the ’90s, as it was consumed by civil war. A quarter-century later, Somalia remains among the least stable countries on Earth, and Somalis continue to come to the United States in droves. Before the Obama administration welcomes 10,000 (or more) Syrian refugees, it should consider the Somalis.

Between 1983 and 2004, the United States resettled just over 55,000 Somali refugees, 13,000 of them in 2004 alone. After a dip in the mid-2000s, Somali refugee resettlement picked back up: 27,000 Somalis entered the U.S. from 2008 to 2013, making the country the fourth-largest source of refugees in that period, behind only Burma, Iraq, and Bhutan.

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For Minnesota, the arrival of Somali refugees — recently, up to 12 percent of the annual national intake, not including those settled elsewhere who then move to Minnesota — has not been an obvious boon. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported last November:

The num­ber of So­ma­li adults and children who participated in the state’s fam­i­ly cash as­sist­ance program jumped 34 percent from 2008 to 2013, to 5,950. At the same time, food assist­ance participation increased 98 percent, to 17,300 adults and children, which does not include U.S.-born Somalis.

Shelters, food banks, and local charities serve thousands of Somalis annually.

#share#And there is the terror problem. To date, more than 60 young Somali men and women have left Minnesota to join al-Shabaab, the Islamic State, and other Islamic terrorist organizations in the Middle East and Africa. Others have been stopped at local airports attempting to make the journey, and prosecutions for sending money to terrorist outfits abroad are not uncommon. The FBI has begun to monitor the community, and it is the target of a federal pilot program to counter violent extremism. That program will focus especially on Minneapolis’s Cedar Riverside neighborhood — or, as locals call it, “Little Mogadishu.”

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It is not difficult to imagine, in the near future, a “Little Damascus” cropping up in Buffalo or Kansas City or Reno. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the conflict in Somalia has created 1.1 million refugees, and another 1.1 million internally displaced persons. Those numbers are dwarfed by the crisis in Syria: 4 million refugees on the run, and another 7 million persons internally displaced. If the United States took in Syrian refugees in the same proportion as Somali refugees, we would be looking at 400,000 new residents. One can extrapolate the consequent strain on welfare programs, and the increased threat of terrorism.

But, as the Somali experiment makes clear, it is not just the short-term consequences that are worrisome. Notably, the terror threat from the Somali-American community comes not from refugees, but from their children — American-born Somalis who have never been to Africa. Setting aside the near-certainty that at least some Syrian refugees will be connected to the Islamic State, refugee resettlement is sure to incubate national-security threats that will not manifest themselves for 20 years.

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I visited Minneapolis’s Somali community last autumn, and while Cedar Riverside is not a Parisian banlieue, it would not be inappropriate to say that Minneapolis’s Somalis have self-ghettoized. One sees a community at tension with its adopted home. As I wrote at the time:

Most American Somalis prefer, when it comes to the U.S. of A., to have one foot in and one out. Being a community of refugees, forced to flee a country torn by two decades of civil war, their embrace of America is grateful, but not necessarily enthusiastic. In the Somali community, a young St. Paul man can say unironically that he was “shocked” to learn that his friend had died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria, because “I thought he [was] going to Ethiopia and fighting.”

Perhaps it was right — as an act of humaneness, of charity — to accept Somali refugees in the numbers we have. If not, perhaps it was excusable, since much of that generosity predated our awareness of the potency of global terror networks and the ability of recruiters in the Horn of Africa to communicate with teenagers in the basements of Minnesota.

#related#We know much more now about the threats we face, and we have the Somali community as an example of the consequences of a generous refugee policy in an age that eschews assimilation. It would be entirely humane to rescue those suffering from Syria’s mayhem. It would be inhumane, though, to gravely threaten American security in the process.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.


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