There are few things as distressing as the sight of thousands of displaced families dragging themselves on foot across an entire continent for the simple luxury of not being shot at. But watching blowhard politicos spin doomsday prophesies out of a global tragedy for the purpose of inciting their base surely comes close.
Last month, President Obama responded to a mounting refuge crisis in Europe by pledging to resettle 10,000 displaced Syrians in the United States this year. According to the United Nations, there are now more than 4 million refugees of the Syrian conflict. The president’s announcement was a minor gesture at best given the magnitude of the crisis and America’s role in creating it.
But that hasn’t stopped a vocal backlash from critics of the plan—including Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who has promised to pull the plug if he’s elected.
“If they do come in, if I win for president, they’re going out,” he said Sunday on ABC’s This Week.
The anti-immigrant group Refugee Resettlement Watch has been stirring the pot, equating Muslim migration with “jihad” and warning the towns selected to host refugees that they have been “targeted to be colonized.”
Meanwhile, a group of House Republicans has introduced a bill that would prioritize refugees from specific religious minorities that are being persecuted under the so-called Islamic State. The thinly veiled attempt to exclude refugees who practice Islam from resettlement ignores the fact that Muslims have suffered some of the worst atrocities of ISIS. More important, it defies one of the principles of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program—to provide sanctuary for people who have been marginalized because of their religion.
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), introduced separate legislation this summer to suspend America’s refugee program altogether. He’s called Obama’s invitation to resettle displaced Syrians an “open door policy” for Islamic radicals to “set up bases of operation illegally at the taxpayers’ expense.”
The heated rhetoric is rare for a program that for decades has been hailed largely as a success.
“For all of its history, this has been a bipartisan issue, with Republicans and Democrats aligned,” said Eskinder Negash, a senior official at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, referring to the conservative opposition. “More refugees have probably come to this country under Republican administrations.”
Indeed, if the U.S. ever did have an open-door policy on refugees, it would have been during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, when 1.2 million refugees resettled in the U.S., an average of more than 100,000 a year.
Under the Obama presidency the door has been ajar, at best. Refugee admissions have inched above 70,000 only twice since 2008.
The president’s annual Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2016, released last Tuesday, raised the cap on displaced persons authorized for resettlement in the United States by 15,000 persons, to 85,000. More than half of those slots are earmarked for displaced Africans fleeing ethnic violence. Most of them will likely be Christians from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who are scattered by the thousands across UN-run refugee camps in southern Africa. In 2013 the U.S. promised to take in 50,000 of them over the next several years.
The new thresholds also include a small increase in allotments for refugees from Europe and Central Asia, and an additional 4,000 “unallocated reserves” that can be distributed as circumstances dictate to the populations who need them.
While it’s possible that some of those reserves will be used to resettle displaced Syrians, the majority of Syrian refugees will be drawn from the 34,000 allotments shared by 18 nations categorized as “Near East/South Asia.”
That number is only 1,000 higher than last year. The president’s just planning on giving Syrians a bigger slice of the pie. And since all but three of the countries governed by the regional allotment are predominantly Muslim, for Islamophobic Americans the whole Syrian refugee deal is pretty much a wash.
That won’t be enough to assuage the plan’s opponents, though, who weren’t any happier last year, when only 1,293 Syrians were granted access.
Confronted in April with the news that a handful of them might wind up in his district, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC)—head of the House select committee on Benghazi—went full NIMBY, launching a failed effort to halt the resettlements until he received a full accounting from the Department of State, including where the refugees were from, what they’d be doing, and who’d be paying for it.
The State Department humored Gowdy with a response, which led to more questions. By early June, when the first refugees finally arrived in the city of Spartanburg, instead of bearded jihadis Gowdy got two Congolese Christians.
The uproar over the U.S. granting sanctuary to a minuscule portion of the total population of displaced Syrians may be a function of the strong anti-immigrant furor informing portions of the Republican base. But it’s couched in the language of fear.
Trump spoke for many when he told George Stephanopoulos on Sunday: “They could be ISIS...I mean this could be one of the great Trojan Horses ever, since the original.”
The truth is, if you’re a terrorist trying to fly under the radar, seeking refugee status to settle in America isn’t exactly your wisest choice.
“Refugees are probably the most vetted people to come to this country,” said Negash. “It’s easier to come here on a tourist or student visa than as a refugee.”
According to the State Department, after first being vetted by the United Nations, applicants go though a laborious process that includes investigations by the National Counterterrorism Center, the Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense, and the FBI.
Even so, it’s certainly possible that a few disguised jihadis would circumvent the gantlet and land on U.S. soil with secret plans for a caliphate in suburban Detroit.
But a look back over the history of American refugee policy reveals an institution predicated on separating the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” And while national security has always been one of the three drivers of that process, along with foreign policy and humanitarianism, in many cases it included bringing people to America from places that were decidedly hostile to us.
The same year President Eisenhower likened the emerging Cold War to a conflict of “lightness against dark,” Congress passed the Refugee Relief Act of 1953, providing for the admission of 214,000 refugees over three years, more than two-thirds from communist countries.
This policy continued through the Vietnam War years as waves of refugees from communist Southeast Asia fled the conflict. The massive influx of Asian refugees facilitated the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which provides the legal basis for today’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Throughout the Cold War America continued to accept tens of thousands of asylum seekers a year from “enemy” nations within the communist bloc. Between 1983 and 2004, the U.S. accepted more than 880,000 people from the Soviet republics and Vietnam alone—two nations with governments explicitly hostile to American interests.
Along the way, we provided sanctuary to a few double agents, who—to use Rep. Babin’s description—actually did “set up bases of operation illegally at the taxpayers’ expense.”
As of August 31, the U.S. had taken in 3,239,943 refugees. Yet with the sole exception of the Mariel Boatlift, when Fidel Castro flooded Miami with more than 100,000 Cubans over the course of half a year (most of whom didn’t even qualify as refugees), America’s resettlement program has barely raised an eyebrow.
As of last December the U.S. was already vetting 9,000 Syrian refugees for admittance, according to the International Business Times, and it could be some time before any significant numbers start arriving in the U.S.
Deciding where they will end up is a delicate balancing act coordinated by nine mostly faith-based voluntary agencies who work with more than 320 satellite organizations in every state but Wyoming. Placement is contingent upon the existence of family already in the states—as well as available housing, jobs, and public services. And some states that already host large Syrian communities may be chosen to absorb the refugees.
A spokeswoman for the Refugee Resettlement Program in Pennsylvania—which hosts one of the largest Syrian expatriate communities in the U.S., in the area around Allentown—said the agency is “closely monitoring the situation.”
“What these men, women, and children have endured is tragic, and Pennsylvania stands ready to work with the federal government on helping in any way possible,” said Kait Gillis of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which oversees the refugee program. “We look forward to receiving more information to determine how best to move forward.”