Reject fear-based arguments, support useful refugee programs

The Editorial Board

Emotions are running high over calls to restrict admission of Syrian refugees. Protesters on both sides make their case outside of the Washington state Capitol.
Emotions are running high over calls to restrict admission of Syrian refugees. Protesters on both sides make their case outside of the Washington state Capitol. The Associated Press

The casualties from the horrific Nov. 13 terrorist attack on Paris were still being counted when U.S. politicians and others honed in on what they consider an immediate threat to national security: Syrian refugees.

More than 30 governors, including Sam Brownback of Kansas, quickly announced that these individuals were not welcome in the states.

From there, the chatter escalated into disgraceful attacks against the Muslim religion and its followers that hearkened to some of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.

The mayor of Roanoke, Va., cited the use of internment camps for Americans of Japanese descent during World War II to justify his opposition to resettling Syrian refugees in his city — as though that profound act of injustice had been a good move.

On the GOP campaign trail, Donald Trump issued an un-American call for a registry of all Muslims living in the United States. Ben Carson made comments that seemed to equate refugees seeking to enter the U.S. with “a rabid dog running around your neighborhood.’’

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul tied up progress on crucial spending bills with an amendment that would ban the use of taxpayer dollars for assistance for newly resettled refugees from 34 troubled nations.

These faith-based bouts of hysteria are surely heartening to the Islamic State and other terrorist movements, whose recruiting efforts rely on young Muslims feeling alienated and disenfranchised.

Concerns about safety in the wake of the Paris attacks are understandable and warranted. A successful attack on U.S. shores would be a prize for any terrorist group, and we depend on U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent that from happening.

But the focus on the refugee resettlement program is misguided.

For one thing, all of the Paris attackers identified so far were European Union nationals. One carried a fake Syrian passport, but authorities do not know whether the man had recently come from that country. There is no indication that he was a refugee.

And unlike many European nations, the U.S. isn’t being swamped by migrants fleeing Syria, Iraq and other war-torn countries. The ocean separating us from those conflicts allows for an exceptionally deliberative selection process.

If the Islamic State wanted to slip an operative into America, posing as a refugee would be the slowest and lowest-percentage way to go about it.

Applicants for resettlement must first pass a United Nations screening process that includes face-to-face interviews, background checks, fingerprinting and other biometric data. Applicants who fall into one of about 45 “categories of concern” regarding their associations and work history in Syria are disqualified.

Those who clear the U.N. screening enter the U.S. vetting process, which involves more interviews, background checks and databases. The process takes at least 18 months and usually longer. Those who finally make it here are screened again upon arrival and after their first year in the country.

For politicians to demand “meaningful security checks,” as Brownback did this week, is like asking for the postal service to deliver the mail. It’s already happening.

People intent on reducing the possibility of terrorists entering the United States would more logically zero in on travelers with student, tourist and work visas. If the Paris attacks are the measure, then people with European Union passports should be suspect.

But let’s not do that. The world is too open and interconnected to allow paranoia about every traveler of a certain nationality.

The best defense against terrorism is not to keep whole groups of people out but to work to make sure that people who are here appreciate and cherish the opportunities and values that come with being in America.

That means we don’t stigmatize people of certain nationalities or religions. We create a pipeline of jobs and education for new arrivals so that we limit the prospects of resentment and radicalization. We give refugees and immigrants a hand up so they can fully engage in American life, not set themselves apart.

We participate in the world community by taking in our share of people fleeing war and oppression. And we benefit from their willingness to work hard and create a better life for their children and grandchildren.

The politicians and commentators who are ginning up this unfounded fear of perhaps the least likely group of people to cause harm to America are ignoring history and current realities. They are allying themselves with the nation’s meanest instinct — to shut out people who are different.

Their unprincipled ambitions and actions are what is to be feared, not legitimate refugees from any land.