Syrian Refugees Don’t Pose a Serious Security Threat

Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States, and none was successfully carried out.  That is one terrorism-planning conviction for every 286,543 refugees that have been admitted.  To put that in perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.  The terrorist threat from Syrian refugees in the United States is hyperbolically over-exaggerated and we have very little to fear from them because the refugee vetting system is so thorough.  

The brutal terrorist attack in France last Friday reignited a debate over accepting refugees from Syria and the Middle East.  A Syrian who applied for asylum could have been one of the attackers, although his passport was a forgery.  (As of this writing, all identified attackers have been French or Belgian nationals.) Governors and presidential candidates have voiced opposition to accepting any Syrian refugees, while several bills in Congress could effectively end the program.

There are many differences between Europe’s vetting of asylum seekers from Syria and how the United States screens refugees.  The geographic distance between the United States and Syria allows our government to better vet those seeking to come here, while large numbers of Syrians who try to go to Europe are less carefully vetted.  A lax security situation there does not imply a lax security situation here.  

The Differences between Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Much of the confusion over the security threat posed by refugees is over the term “refugee” itself.  It’s not yet clear how many foreign attackers in Paris entered Europe, but one or more may have entered disguised as asylum seekers. 

In the United States, asylum seekers show up at U.S. borders and ask to stay must show they have a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or their political opinion if they return to their country of origin. There is an application and investigation process, and the government often detains the asylum seeker during that process. But the investigation and vetting of the asylum seeker often take place while he is allowed inside of the United States. Many of the Syrians and others who have entered Europe are asylum seekers who are vetted through similar, less stringent security screens.

Refugees are processed from a great distance away and are more thoroughly vetted than asylum seekers as a result.  In the United States, a refugee is somebody who is identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a refugee camp.  UNHCR does the first round of security checks on the refugee according to international treaties to which the United States is a party and refers some of those who pass the initial checks to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).  The referrals are then interviewed by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer abroad.  The refugee must be outside the United States, be of special humanitarian concern to the government, demonstrate persecution or fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, and must not be firmly resettled in another country.

Because the refugee is abroad while the U.S. government checks their background, potential terrorist links, and their claims to refugee status, the vetting is a lot more thorough and can take up to two years for non-Syrians.  For Syrians, the vetting can take about three years because of the heightened concerns over security. 

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, face rigorous checks, but they are conducted while the asylum seeker is inside of the United States and not always while he is in a detention center.  Syrians fleeing violence who come to the United States will be refugees, whereas many getting into Europe are asylum seekers.  This crucial distinction shows that the United States is in a far better security situation vis-à-vis Europe on any potential terrorist threat from Syrians.

The distinction between asylum seekers and refugees is usually lost when discussing the security threat from refugees.  The father of Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev was granted asylum status, which conferred derivative asylum status on the children.  None of the Tsarnaevs were ever refugees. 

Both Tamerlan and Dzokhar were children when they were admitted through their parents’ asylum claims.  They did not adopt a radical interpretation of Islam or start plotting a terrorist attack until years after coming here.  Their case does not reveal flaws in the refugee vetting process. There were some other terrorist attacks in the early 1990s from applicants for asylum status, but none of them were actual refugees. 

Despite the Headlines, Violence Is Trending Downwards

When something as horrific as last Friday’s Paris attacks unfolds on the news, it’s hard not to feel that the world is a very dangerous place. It’s hard to remember that what makes acts of terror, such as the one in Paris last week, so shocking and newsworthy is that violence is becoming rarer. In fact, the vast majority of human interactions are peaceful.

Esteemed journalist and advisory board member Matt Ridley put it well when he said, “violence makes the news precisely because it is so rare; routine kindness does not make the news precisely because it is so common.” Harvard University’s Steven Pinker, who is also one of our board members, observed,

We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. […] The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count.

And if we judge how violent the world is by counting, instead of by how gruesome the headlines are, we find something heartening. International wars have almost disappeared. Homicides are becoming rarer. In the United States, violence against women is decreasing, and so is child abuse.

Almost everywhere, we see a trend away from violence. Progress, sadly, is neither linear nor inevitable. Setbacks do occur. Terrorism is one of the few areas where violence is becoming worse, although it remains rare. For example, you are much more likely to die of a disease, in an accident, or from an ordinary homicide. 

To meet the challenge posed by terrorism the rest of the world may need to think outside the box. Even one violent death is too many. Still, we must not lose sight of the fact that though some violent fanatics may stand athwart the trend towards greater peace and tolerance, violence is slowly retreating.

Government As Scofflaw, On Pollution And Beyond

It’s a familiar libertarian insight that regulation often holds government itself to lower standards than it does private actors. Pension funds for public employees are mostly immune from the federal solvency and funding requirements that apply to their private counterparts; Federal Trade Commission rules against false advertising by profit-seeking companies do not restrain false advertising by government actors on the same topics; the FTC can fine companies massively for data breaches even as the federal government itself suffers gigantic losses of sensitive data to foreign actors with few career consequences for many of those who had dozed; anticompetitive practices per se illegal under antitrust law become legal when states do them, and so forth and so on.

Now David Konisky of Indiana University and Manuel Teodoro of Texas A&M, in a study published by the American Journal of Political Science entitled “When Governments Regulate Governments,” have pulled together some data:

Our empirical subjects are public and private entities’ compliance with the U.S. Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. We find that, compared with private firms, governments violate these laws significantly more frequently and are less likely to be penalized for violations.

The TPP and Encryption

As we evaluate the TPP in the coming months, there will be a lot of talk about the “regulatory”/”governance” parts.  These aspects can be very difficult to evaluate.  Here’s an illustration of why the assessment is so hard.

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, Stewart Baker had a recent post in which he worried that a particular TPP provision would prevent the NSA/FBI etc. from demanding encryption keys from private companies.  Now, I have a different view of what constitutes good public policy, so if the TPP prevented this, I wouldn’t be worried.  But does the TPP actually do this?

The provision in question is in the Technical Barriers to Trade chapter, in Annex 8-B, Section A, paras. 3-4 (pp. 22-23 of the linked document).  At first glance, it does seem as though it says what Mr. Baker thinks it says, as it provides that with respect to a product that uses cryptography and is designed for commercial applications, no TPP Party may require the transfer of a private key or something similar.  (Go to the link for the full legalese; also, note that the provision has other functions as well).

But, before we draw a final conclusion, we need to keep in mind the exceptions set out in another chapter

One particularly broad exception is for “security.”  Article 29.2(b) says:  “Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed to: … preclude a Party from applying measures that it considers necessary for the fulfilment of its obligations with respect to the maintenance or restoration of international peace or security, or the protection of its own essential security interests.”  The word “considers,” in the trade law context, usually means a provision is “self-judging,” indicating that the government has a lot of leeway to do whatever it wants.  So, at least in theory, if the government demanding a private key invokes “security,” it can pretty much do whatever it wants.

So how do we find out what the TPP provisions actually mean?  What do they require from governments in terms of demanding encryption keys?

Can China’s Authoritarians Keep the Economic Miracle Going?

BEIJING—Mao Zedong, China’s “Great Helmsman,” died four decades ago. Only after his murderous reign finally ended could his nation move forward. The old dictator and his cronies wouldn’t recognize China’s capital today. Beijing has become a sprawling metropolis with night clubs and fast food restaurants. Shanghai’s transformation is equally dramatic. Always more international and commercial than Beijing, it has become a world financial center.

There’s a lot more to the People’s Republic of China, including a vast rural territory which remains poor, with average incomes well below urban PRC. But extreme poverty has given way to a genuine, if modest, prosperity.

As China has advanced on the global stage, there’s been discussion of the “Beijing consensus” or China Model. Who needs free markets and democracy if managed capitalism and autocracy can deliver sustained, even faster, economic growth? Dictators around the world want to convince themselves–and more importantly, their subjects–that oppression pays.

Yet the China Model is looking a bit frayed. China has slowing growth, a property bubble, ghost cities, inefficient state enterprises, a stock market crash, badly skewed demographics, overextended banks stuffed with political loans, and unbelievable official statistics.

China Must Push America to Solve the North Korean Crisis

Many U.S. policymakers see China as the answer to North Korean proliferation. If Beijing would just tell the North’s Kim Jong-un to behave, East Asia’s biggest problem would disappear.
Of course, it’s not that simple. To be sure, the People’s Republic of China has influence in Pyongyang, but the latter always has jealously guarded its independence.
Still, the current regime does not appear to be as stable as its predecessors. Powerful Chinese pressure, if backed by economic sanctions, might encourage now incipient opposition.
The China-North Korea relationship goes back to the Korean War. Although, Beijing no longer hides its dissatisfaction with the North, the PRC is not yet willing to abandon its sole ally.
Its reluctance is understandable. Violent conflict within the DPRK, mass refugee flows across the Yalu, loss of Chinese investments, and a united Korea hosting U.S. troops all are possibilities no PRC government desires. China’s interest is almost purely negative, avoiding what the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could become.

The New York Times and The Boston Globe Unload on ObamaCare

Aside from one necessary clarification (see far below), it would be difficult to improve on what the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the enrollees they interview have to say about ObamaCare.

First, from yesterday’s New York Times article, “Many Say High Deductibles Make Their Health Law Insurance All but Useless”: 

But for many consumers, the sticker shock is coming not on the front end, when they purchase the plans, but on the back end when they get sick: sky-high deductibles that are leaving some newly insured feeling nearly as vulnerable as they were before they had coverage.

“The deductible, $3,000 a year, makes it impossible to actually go to the doctor,” said David R. Reines, 60, of Jefferson Township, N.J., a former hardware salesman with chronic knee pain. “We have insurance, but can’t afford to use it.”…

“We could not afford the deductible,” said Kevin Fanning, 59, who lives in North Texas, near Wichita Falls. “Basically I was paying for insurance I could not afford to use.”

He dropped his policy…

“Our deductible is so high, we practically pay for all of our medical expenses out of pocket,” said Wendy Kaplan, 50, of Evanston, Ill. “So our policy is really there for emergencies only, and basic wellness appointments.”

Her family of four pays premiums of $1,200 a month for coverage with an annual deductible of $12,700…

Alexis C. Phillips, 29, of Houston, is the kind of consumer federal officials would like to enroll this fall. But after reviewing the available plans, she said, she concluded: “The deductibles are ridiculously high. I will never be able to go over the deductible unless something catastrophic happened to me. I’m better off not purchasing that insurance and saving the money in case something bad happens.”

“While my premiums are affordable, the out-of-pocket expenses required to meet the deductible are not,” said [Karin] Rosner, who makes about $30,000 a year…

“When they said affordable, I thought they really meant affordable,” [Anne Cornwell of Chattanooga, Tenn.,] said.

And from today’s Boston Globe article, “High-Deductible Health Plans Make Affordable Care Act ‘Unaffordable,’ Critics Say”:

“We can’t afford the Affordable Care Act, quite honestly,” said Cassaundra Anderson, whose family canvassed for Obama in their neighborhood, a Republican stronghold outside Cincinnati. “The intention is great, but there is so much wrong. . . . I’m mad.”…

The Andersons’ experience echoes that of hundreds of thousands of newly insured Americans facing sticker shock over out-of-pocket costs…

“This will be an issue at least one more time in the 2016 election. It could absolutely still hurt Democrats,” said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Polls about the Affordable Care Act have a considerable amount of middle-income people who say either the program has done nothing for them or actually hurt them.”…

“Unfortunately, what we are headed toward now is universal crappy health insurance,” said Dr. Budd Shenkin, a California pediatrician…“It’s just not a good deal for people,” he said.

“We’re in the process of looking at going without insurance,” [Cassaundra Anderson] said, calculating that the family will be better off financially just paying the $2,000 tax penalty for not abiding by the law’s mandate. “What am I even paying these insurance people for? Why should we reenroll?”…

“I cannot get anything with this insurance. Nothing,” said [Laura] Torres, who avoids seeking treatment for her thyroid condition and high blood pressure because of cost. “I just pay my monthly payments, try to take care of myself, go to work, and hope something serious doesn’t happen to me.”…

Amete Kahsay, 53, works as a temporary warehouse packer in Columbus. The Affordable Care marketplace is her only option for health insurance. She and her husband, an airport shuttle driver, pay $275 a month for a “bronze” plan with a $13,200 deductible.

Shortly after they signed up for insurance last year, her husband rushed her to the emergency room when she experienced dizziness. The visit, which included a CT scan of her brain, cost $1,700. She paid the charge from her savings, then returned to her native Ethiopia, where care is cheaper, to consult a neurologist and seek follow-up care.

“I support Obamacare. Without it, I wouldn’t have any type of insurance. But I’m not sure it’s worth the money,” said Kahsay, a US citizen who is registered as an independent voter. “Now, unless I get very, very sick, like only if it’s life-threatening, I won’t go to the doctor. I just lay down and take a rest.”

The necessary clarification is that these people are not complaining about high-deductibles in a market system. In a market system, consumers who choose high deductibles save money on their premiums and therefore have more resources to help them pay their out-of-pocket expenses. ObamaCare, on the other hand, manages to pair high deductibles with higher premiums, stripping many people of this benefit of high-deductible plans and leaving them unable to pay their medical bills.