The Corner

National Security & Defense

How to Think about the Refugee Question

A few thoughts about the current debate.

  1. The purpose of the U.S. government is to protect the rights, lives, and property of U.S. citizens. U.S. policies, including U.S. immigration and refugee-resettlement policies, should be oriented toward U.S. interests.
  2. That being said, the United States is not some poor, defenseless, feckless, backward nation that has to take a penny-ante approach to every question. When the associated costs and risks are sufficiently low and the humanitarian interest sufficiently compelling, we can afford to do things like provide emergency disaster relief and humanitarian aid when there is no obvious immediate U.S. interest being served. One of the humanitarian things we do is refugee resettlement.
  3. The question before us, therefore, isn’t whether we accept immigrants or refugees (of course we do) or even whether we accept Muslim immigrants and refugees at a time when we are being targeted by Muslim terrorists. Rather, the question is: Do we accept these refugees, at this time, in these numbers, under these circumstances?
  4. International flows of refugees (and those posing as refugees) are an avenue of transport for ISIS and other terrorists. That’s not only the apparent case with the Paris attackers but also the case with domestic terrorists in the United States, such as the Boston bombers.
  5. Nearly half of the nation’s governors (almost all of them Republicans) have voiced their opposition to current resettlement plans, and the poll numbers suggest that the balance of public opinion is on their side. Governors have a limited role to play in international questions, but that role is not zero (the Obama administration is required by law to consult with state and local authorities on this question) and they should not be discounted.
  6. Appeals to historical parallels such as Franklin Roosevelt’s callous response to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany are inapt inasmuch as there was at the time no worldwide Jewish supremacist movement engaged in massive acts of terrorism on every continent save Antarctica. “The exact same arguments were made against welcoming Jewish refugees” is a sentiment that mistakes trivial rhetorical similarities for substantive similarities.
  7. It surely is the case that the vast majority of those fleeing Syria and other areas beset by the barbarism of ISIS and its affiliates are ordinary decent people caught in horrifying circumstances, and they deserve our sympathy. But the question remains: How comprehensive is that majority? There is no reason to believe that it is 100 percent. This isn’t a criminal trial but a political decision, and the burden of proof does not necessarily fall on the skeptics.
  8. There are reasons to believe that U.S. protocols for screening refugees and immigrants for terrorist ties are not especially good, and that our surveillance of immigrants and refugees after their entry into the United States is insufficient. It may very well be the case that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan ancestry believed to have been a principal organizer of the Paris attacks, was radicalized in Belgium. But that fact would counsel more scrutiny and surveillance of Muslim immigrant communities, not a more liberal and generous policy toward Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees. There also is reason to believe that our current national political culture and institutions have made it difficult to assimilate immigrants satisfactorily, especially when they arrive in large enough numbers to form self-sustaining enclaves. For that reason, other points of comparison such as the large waves of Irish immigrants that worried Americans of another era also are not very apt: Pubs and mosques perform very different social functions, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians isn’t very much like the Muslim Brotherhood. We need to think in terms of specifics rather than generalities.
  9. The sum of this suggests that we should proceed with an abundance of caution. Resettling Syrians in the United States is not our only option, and resettling all these Syrians (and whoever else is in the mix) at this time in these numbers under these conditions most certainly isn’t our only option. If nearly half (and, in reality, probably more) of the nation’s governors are not satisfied with our current screening and oversight procedures, that is reasonably strong evidence that the public at large should be skeptical too—which it is.
  10. When in doubt—and the doubts here are heavy—the wisest thing is to do is: nothing. Certainly it is prudent to proceed slowly and with extreme caution before we take any steps that are difficult or impossible to reverse.

    UPDATE: It is now more than half the governors. Also, an earlier version of this post mischaracterized Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is Belgian-born. 

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