Why refusing to accept Syrian refugees in the US is a terrible idea

Migrants walk through a cornfield between Serbia and Croatia. 
Richard Hall

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In the wake of the attacks in Paris on Friday that left 132 people dead, a host of Republican governors and one Democrat have declared that their states will not accept Syrian refugees.

More than half of the governors in the United States insist that the 2,184 Syrian refugees admitted to their country since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, out of a total of four million who have fled to other countries, is simply too many. 

The reasoning given is that they want to protect their constituents from terrorism. This is, to put it delicately, ill-advised. Here are a few reasons why.

No refugee links to a specific threat 

First of all, none of the Paris attackers identified so far are refugees. In fact, all of them are EU nationals. A Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the attackers, but it is unclear whether it is genuine (fake passports can be bought for as little as $250). Newspapers in Serbia have reported that police there detained a Syrian holding a passport with the same data as the one found in Paris attack.

Speaking in the aftermath of the attacks, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at the European Commission, stressed that the attacks revealed a problem with domestic security, not an external threat.

“Let me underline, the profile of the terrorists so far identified tells us this is an internal threat,” he said. “It is all EU citizens so far. This can change with the hours, but so far it is quite clear it is an issue of internal domestic security.”

It would have made more sense, and still none at all, if the governors had released statements announcing their intention to block the resettlement of French people in their states.

The refugee vetting process is extremely rigorous  

Even if more attackers are identified and are found to be Syrian, the refugees being resettled in the US have undergone extensive vetting involving the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner described the checks as "the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States."

The process involves lengthy interviews, background checks, biometric data and more interviews. It takes on average around 18-24 months for a refugee’s application to live in the US to be approved.

It is nearly impossible to imagine that any of those who took part in the Paris attacks, some of whom were known to intelligence services, would have been given asylum in the US.

It’s also important to note the demographics of refugees being admitted to the US: more than half of them are children. Single men of fighting age make up roughly 2 percent of those admitted.

These statistics have done little to ease the concerns of New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, who said that even orphans under the age of five shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the United States.

Unfounded fear of refugees feeds Islamic State recruitment efforts

Treating Syrian refugees who are fleeing the very same terror that the Islamic State unleashed in Paris is both morally repugnant and a huge tactical blunder.

The group wants to sow discord between Muslims and non-Muslims. It benefits hugely from the mistrust and ill treatment of Muslims in the West. Its main selling point is that Islam and the West are incompatible, and so an Islamic State is a necessity for Muslims to live in peace.  

In a statement released after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January, the group openly declared its aim was to destroy the “gray zone” of coexistence between Muslims and the West.

"And thus, the time had come for another event — magnified by the presence of the Khalifah on the global stage — to further bring division to the world and destroy the grayzone everywhere,” the statement read.

It is something US President Barack Obama, in his response to calls for the US to stop accepting refugees, pointed out. 

"I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate," he said at a summit in the Philippines. 

The US governors refusing to accept Syrian refugees are behaving in the exact way the Islamic State hoped they would.

It's a red herring

There is some solace for those who find these governors heartless. They do not actually have the power to do what they want to do.   

As Dara Lind, writing over at Vox, points out: “The federal government has sole authority to decide who gets allowed into the United States. Period. That's true for refugees and for every other type of immigrant. And once people have been formally 'admitted' to the US, they're not obligated to stay in one place.”

What governors can do, though, is make life miserable for those who are resettled by blocking funds to state agencies tasked with helping refugees integrate.