For the past year, right-wing American politicians have grandstanded over the supposed threat of Syrian refugees. Candidates in the Republican presidential primaries and GOP governors all declared that they would bar admission to these desperate people, telegraphing their toughness to a conservative base while demonstrating as little empathy as possible for families fleeing the world’s most miserable conflict.
Their arguments, all articulated by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump some way or the other, should be familiar: “We have no way of vetting.” (Not true.) Refugees harbor ideologies anathema to the values of the United States. (A hideously cruel mischaracterization.) Refugees have taken part in terrorist attacks in Europe. (Not quite, as we’ll explain below.)
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, doubled down Tuesday night on that last claim. He pointed to proxies of the Islamic State militant group infiltrating Europe in the guise of refugees and gestured to the attacks in Paris in November.
“I will tell you, after two Syrian refugees were involved in the attack in Paris that is called Paris’s 9/11, as governor of the state of Indiana, I have no higher priority than the safety and security of the people of my state,” he said. There’s a blatant falsehood here: The identified assailants were all European nationals; none were Syrian refugees.
It does seem, though, that some members of that militant cell, which carried out its killing in the name of the Islamic State, may have returned from the battlefields of Syria on a mission for the extremist group. They used the same migrant routes plied by hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking passage into Europe and managed to get through security checks at various points, exploiting a system that is straining under the burden of the influx as well as the continent’s bureaucratic disorganization and political dysfunction.
An investigative report by the Washington Post earlier this year followed the path of four Islamic State fighters from Syria, through Turkey and then to a Greek island, where they arrived with fake Syrian passports. Two were eventually picked up by authorities in Austria; the other two detonated themselves outside a soccer stadium in Saint-Denis, France.
The fact of this threat – the Islamic State has specifically said it will send its agents to sow havoc in the West – has polarized public opinion in Europe about the plight of refugees. Nevertheless, the continent’s top leaders, including French President Frangois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have reiterated support for refugees, while promising a greater regime of security checks and intelligence sharing.
But none of this really has much to do with the question of Syrian refugees being welcomed to the United States. As much as Trump, Pence and other Republican officials invoke Europe’s security concerns, the analogy doesn’t work.
The arrival of refugees and migrants into Europe is the spillover of a humanitarian crisis – Syria’s neighbors are struggling to cope with more than 4 million Syrians now living within their borders. The promise of asylum in Europe and the continent’s existing policies enabling freedom of movement have led to the disorganized migration by rubber dinghies and ferries, through smuggling networks and temporary camps, that was exploited by the Islamic State.
The United States, thousands of miles away, is not victim to this geography and can take in refugees through a much more careful and deliberate process. And make no mistake – the U.S. refugee resettlement program involves one of the world’s most strict and protracted systems of vetting. It takes one to two years, as the Washington Post’s Fact Checker observed earlier, and screenings by a host of federal agencies.
Before the Paris attacks and the presidential election cycle, most of the criticism surrounding the U.S. refugee program was that it was too slow and that the Obama administration was letting in far too few Syrian refugees. U.S. resettlement of Syrians is conspicuously meager, especially when you consider the efforts made north of the border by the Canadian government to fast-track its program.
The common Republican refrain about vetting, voiced by Pence on Tuesday night, is that FBI Director James B. Comey has stated that it’s “impossible” to know for certain who these refugees are. These remarks, though, were made in a very particular context: When faced with proposed Republican legislation that asked the FBI director and other top national security officials to personally vouch for each admitted refugee, Comey balked at the notion.
“Could I certify to there being no risk associated with an individual?” he said at a congressional hearing in December. “The bureau doesn’t take positions on legislation, and we don’t get involved in policy decisions. But that practically would be impossible.” Not wanting to assume direct personal accountability for each refugee is very different than saying there is no way to vet them: There is.
Nevertheless, this has become one of the many substance-free mantras of the 2016 U.S. election cycle. The certainty that refugees are a menace underlay a controversial tweet by Donald Trump Jr., the GOP nominee’s son, who likened Syrian asylum seekers to poisoned candy. Never mind that the chances of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist in the United States is 1 in 3.64 billion.
Lone-wolf attacks by homegrown terrorists in Orlando, San Bernardino, Calif., and recently New York, inspired by the Islamic State, seemed to give the Trump campaign more ammunition to double-down on its hostility toward Syrian refugees. Yet none of those implicated in these attacks had much to do with Syria – some were American-born, and none of their families entered the United States through the program that is in place to vet Syrian refugees.
The only thing they have in common is a connection to countries that are Muslim-majority: The Trump campaign’s politicking ultimately hinges on the demonization of a wide swath of humanity.
A federal appeals court hinted at that on Monday when it overruled Pence’s move to block Syrian refugee resettlement in Indiana, ruling that it amounted to illegal discrimination.
Judge Richard Posner, who happens to be a conservative, wrote for the court that Pence’s position would be the equivalent of saying “that he wants to forbid black people to settle in Indiana not because they’re black but because he’s afraid of them, and since race is therefore not his motive, he isn’t discriminating.”
The court described the vice-presidential nominee’s scaremongering that terrorists would pose as refugees as “nightmare speculation” with little evidence.
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