This week, we’ve heard calls from all quarters to close our doors to the modest number of Syrian refugees President Obama proposed welcoming to the United States. Thirty governors have vowed to bar Syrian refugees from entering their states; the House of Representatives voted 289-137 to place impossibly tight restrictions on admission of refugees from Iraq and Syria; and 2016 presidential candidates disingenuously decried the possible influx of “100,000,” “200,000” or even “250,000” refugees that no one has proposed — remember Obama only called for letting in 10,000 Syrians next year.
But after the Paris terrorist attacks of a week ago, not only should we not give in to this paranoia, we should offer entry to as many Syrian refugees as we can — it’s more important than ever to demonstrate to both our allies and our adversaries that America will live up to the values of sheltering innocents and constructively intervening to end civil war.
Not only that, in the long run, it’ll make us safer.
Last month, I called for the United States to end military intervention in Syria and take a more proactive role in developing a plan for the world to resettle all the refugees fleeing the that country’s civil war. On the surface, Paris looks like an argument to abandon such a strategy. A closer look, however, reveals that, fundamentally, nothing in my argument has changed — indeed, Paris makes the need for a change in direction of de-escalation, compassion and forward thinking all the more clear.
First, clearly, barring refugees would not prevent the Islamic State from conducting further attacks against Western targets. Those who argue that Paris proves taking in refugees is too great a risk are confusing refugees with terrorists. They point to reports that one of the suspected Paris terrorists came to Europe as a refugee. But refugees themselves are not a threat; the millions of Syrian refugees are fleeing from President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, not sticking around to fight with them or branching out to carry the violence overseas.
Seven of the eight known terrorists suspected in the Paris attacks were citizens of European countries. None of the 9/11 attackers was a refugee, nor had any of them posed as refugees. In other words, some of the most heinous terrorist attacks in history were carried out by individuals who were in the countries they attacked under completely different circumstances. They didn’t flee war zones under false pretenses. Think of it in this context: as my Cato Institute colleague Alex Nowratesh writes, “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.” By contrast, he notes, “about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.”
Moreover, contrary to claims by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) that “we can’t background check them”, the process of screening refugees is lengthy and arduous. Refugees must first pass through a security check and screening process run by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to determine whether they are unable to return to their homes due to “serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence…” Then those seeking entry to the U.S. must meet with a host of agencies, with final approval granted only if they survive a background check carried out by the Department of Homeland Security. The process can take between one and upward of two years — hardly a shortcut for a would-be terrorist. When we hear calls to shut down borders and turn away refugees, we are not hearing proposals that will actually make us safer. We are hearing knee-jerk reactions to a horrifying attack and political theater designed to win votes instead of solve problems.
Second, there’s no risk-free solution to confronting the problems posed by the Islamic State. We have to weigh the potential harm suffered from a terrorist attack against the harm caused by continued military intervention in Syria, which is not only likely to cost more American lives if we become mired down in Syria militarily, but in turn is almost certain to exacerbate the refugee problem by prolonging the Syrian civil war.
Indeed, those who use the prospect of potential terrorist attacks to criticize refugee resettlement — many of whom simultaneously call for an increased military commitment — must account for the fact we lost almost 7,000 lives to military intervention in the Afghanistan and Iraq. More aggressive intervention to engage the Islamic State would only drive that figure higher. Worse, based on our experience since 9/11, those additional casualties would do nothing to reduce the probability of future terrorist attacks.
Finally, a resettlement strategy will make Americans safer. Opponents of refugee resettlement underestimate both the backlash from military intervention and the impact that a dramatic change in policy could have on Middle Eastern hearts and minds. As Foreign Policy’s Steven M. Walt notes, “the Islamic State hopes to provoke responses that will reinforce its narrative of irreconcilable religious conflict and attract even more sympathizers to its bloodstained banner,” drawing France and its allies (a/k/a, us) further into conflict. Ill-conceived calls from presidential candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Jeb Bush to take in only Christian refugees exacerbate this dynamic.
Accepting all refugees while disengaging militarily, on the other hand, would flip the script, robbing Islamic State leaders and other extremists of a key plank in their calls to arms. Large-scale refugee resettlement demonstrates that Americans and Europeans value the lives of Middle Eastern people, not just Middle East oil or maintaining the geopolitical balance of power. Ending our current campaign of airstrikes and focusing on the well-being of Syrians would send a completely different message, one that would prove far more damaging to the Islamic State in the long run than bombs.
As Paris recovers, our hearts go out to the families of the victims. But no single attack, no matter how cold-blooded should cause us to abandon a noble and necessary course of action. Millions of refugees desperately need help. And our government has to find a way to balance its primary responsibility to protect Americans from harm while also fulfilling the role of a constructive global power by extending help to Syrians fleeing years of carnage — not to mention that doing this will ultimately make Americans more secure. A policy of resettling refugees presents its own obstacles, but unlike a military response it offers concrete long-term benefits while undermining one of the root causes of terrorist attacks.