The inaccurate, ahistorical, illogical, and downright irrational canards about the wisdom of admitting significant numbers of Middle East refugees into the United States keep popping up as fast as refugees are being created. Earlier this week, I covered and debunked some of them. Here in no particular order are some more I’ve run across since then that simply have no role to play in a realistic, constructive policy debate:
> Those favoring an unusually cautious approach are confusing, or worse, equating refugees with terrorists. We can thank President Obama, among others, for this one. Who on earth is he thinking of? The fear that’s most widely expressed is not that those truly fleeing conflict, persecution, utter chaos, or some combination of the above, mean the United States and the rest of the world harm. The fear is that dangerous enemies taking advantage of the tumultuous situation both in the Middle East and at European and other foreign entry points to mingle in with the refugee flood and gain access to target countries.
> America’s vetting procedures are entirely adequate. This is a claim made by the president, as well as by many of his political appointees, and by politicians and others who favor either current U.S. admissions policies or more lenient approaches. According to Mr. Obama, refugees are subjected to “the most rigorous vetting process that we have for anybody who is admitted.” The trouble is, this process was put in place before Syrian and Iraqi leaders, and ISIS and similar groups, starting last year, sparked the latest – and by recent historical standards, the most widespread and politically destabilizing – round of armed conflict in the Middle East.
So it’s scarcely relevant, and even less comforting, to insist that current procedures are the most stringent in U.S. history. The standard that must be met is whether they are adequate given current circumstances – and this is the question that the President and his supporters apparently don’t want to address. And in this vein, it matters decisively that some of Mr. Obama’s leading national security aides don’t share his confidence, and just as important, have expressed these doubts on the record, for attribution.
> U.S. vetting procedures have already been succeeding for years. Similar to the above claims of adequacy, many leniency supporters contend that American screening has already proved its sterling effectiveness over many decades. In the words of The Atlantic’s Russell Berman:
“In the 14 years since September 11, 2001, the United States has resettled 784,000 refugees from around the world, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute, a D.C. think tank. And within that population, three people have been arrested for activities related to terrorism. None of them were close to executing an attack inside the U.S., and two of the men were caught trying to leave the country to join terrorist groups overseas.”
But as indicated above, current challenges potentially dwarf even those that emerged after September 11. After all, current Middle East conflicts have destabilized many more of its regions than 9/11, its aftermath, or even the second Iraq War. So the refugee outflow today is much bigger.
Moreover, Al Qaeda, the group responsible for those terror strikes, was effectively bottled up in and kept on the run and off balance in Afghanistan for many years afterwards by the U.S. military and its allies. Of course, subsequent terror attacks were attempted, their generally small scale and America’s ability to thwart them are compelling evidence that the organization’s capabilities had been – to use a current term of art – significantly degraded.
More important, the source Berman cites could well be inaccurate. In 2013, ABC News reported that “Several dozen suspected terrorist bombmakers, including some believed to have targeted American troops, may have mistakenly been allowed to move to the United States as war refugees, according to FBI agents investigating the remnants of roadside bombs recovered from Iraq and Afghanistan.” In addition, refugees from Syria are already showing up at America’s Mexican border. Although many will doubtless be genuine, even those who turn themselves into the authorities may be counting on the Obama administration’s poor record of monitoring such arrivals’ whereabouts over time. (In addition, Mexican smugglers have just been caught trying to sneak in individuals from Afghanistan and Pakistan).
And here’s another big problem with claims of vetting’s successful record. As I wrote on Wednesday, the world saw that less than a dozen attackers armed with high power conventional weapons could turn a major Western capital into a war zone for hours, and kill and wound hundreds. But does anyone really suppose that future attackers will limit themselves to such humdrum armament? Even fewer terrorists could wreak far greater damage with chemical or biological weapons, or even a “dirty” nuclear bomb. Even today, therefore, “very good” isn’t nearly good enough. Going forward, it will be even less adequate.
> Mr. Obama has also criticized the focus on security threats from Middle East refugees by noting that the numbers he has decided to admit from Syria (about 10,000) are dwarfed by the flows of tourists into the country. Others similarly cite the ease with which radicalized Europeans carrying valid passports can arrive in America. I offered some rebuttals to these points yesterday. Here’s an elaboration on one:
Such leniency arguments also overlook a crucial difference when it comes to the vetting challenge. The great majority of foreign tourists and other visitors to the United States come from countries where serious population and law enforcement records are available. So reliable – though by no means perfect – cross-checking and other crucial screening activities are usually possible. These data, as I and so many others have noted – including the president’s own top advisers – either simply don’t exist in today’s war-torn Middle East regions, and/or American authorities have no access to them. So at the least, many fewer reliable cross-checking activities are possible.
>The United States has a moral duty to accept refugees. No quarrel here with a point championed emphatically by the president and so many others. But curiously, Mr. Obama and his allies on the issue seem certain that this national moral duty will be carried out by admitting the relatively small number of 10,000. Why should this figure, though, have any special significance? And where’s the evidence that the actual level isn’t 20,000? Or 24,652? Or 100,000?
Which brings up a related, too often neglected issue. The president – and others – unmistakably have a right to their opinions about America’s moral duties. And the president’s opinion should carry special weight since he has been elected (twice) as the nation’s top political leader. His fellow citizens have granted him considerable (though not absolute) power to make policy, and to use his office as a bully pulpit to convince them that his opinions are correct.
But on matters such as defining moral duties, it’s crucial to remember that the president’s opinions are just that. Simply opinions. Moreover, his opinions on moral issues carry no special weight, though they are by definition of special interest. For he was not elected to be preacher-in-chief, and nothing about his personal history or the history of his office indicates that he deserves any deference on matters of ethics. I’m as much of an expert as he is. So are you.
As a result, America’s (democratic) values point to majority opinion as a major determinant of policy in this sphere. And so far, all the evidence shows that the American people favor the restrictionist position.
> Americans have usually been hostile to refugees – thereby increasing their obligations today to admit more of them. Here’s where a major history lesson is in order. As made clear by this post on public opinion during previous refugee crises, Americans have rarely been enthusiastic about large-scale admissions proposals. And as I wrote Wednesday, much xenophobia and other forms of bigotry have greeted them. But the author also displays sophomoric judgment, simplistically suggesting that poll numbers reveal all. This is poor methodology even by the standards of public opinion analysis, for no effort is made to measure salience.
So although strong opposition was expressed, for example, even for admitting refugees from Europe after World War II, and from the communist bloc during the Cold War, strong opposition was never demonstrated in any other form. The typical American may have grumbled about these policies, but when all was said and done acquiesced in them with scarcely any resistance or even protracted protest. The charge of widespread – and effective – prejudice is often justified early in American history. But after the mid-20th century in particular, sound historical analysis reveals that the U.S. record has been commendably humane.
There’s little doubt that constantly evolving circumstances (AKA “history”) could justify more welcoming U.S. refugee policies down the road. But there’s also little doubt that until such a shift genuinely is warranted, the flood of specious calls for change will continue – if only because there are so many more ways to be wrong than to be right.