The Real Extremist

Alabama poses a greater risk to Syrian refugees than those refugees pose to Alabama.

“I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama,” Gov. Robert Bentley said in a statement.

Photo by Sutherland Boswell

Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley announced late Sunday that his state would refuse to allow any Syrian refugees to be relocated there. “After full consideration of this weekend’s attacks of terror on innocent citizens in Paris, I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” he said in a statement released by his office. “As your governor, I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way.”

He’s not alone. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder reached the same decision Sunday. Other Republican governors in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Illinois, and Indiana have followed suit. I fully expect more governors will make similar announcements before this article is published. Republican presidential candidates are now stumbling over one another to take the toughest stance against the prospect of Syrian refugees resettling in the United States, which is just another way of saying that they are trying to echo what Donald Trump has already said. But let’s stick with Bentley since he was one of the trailblazers of what is quickly becoming a consensus position for members of the Republican party.     

It isn’t surprising that Bentley would quickly choose to take a Fortress Alabama approach to people who aren’t actually from the Heart of Dixie. He did, after all, sign an anti-immigration law in 2011 that many considered even more stringent than the similar “show me your papers” law in Arizona, which required police offers to detain anyone they suspected of being an illegal immigrant if the person couldn’t produce proper documentation. (Bentley’s twist is that schools have to determine the citizenship status of students, too.)

But if Bentley thinks his insight into combating the inflow of Hispanic workers can easily transfer to the world of terrorism, he is wrong. There is no evidence that ISIS is engaged in a massive effort to smuggle jihadis into Syria’s refugee flows. (Yes, it appears one of the Paris killers embedded himself in the torrent of refugees flowing into Europe, but the continent has hundreds of thousands arriving on its shores, and French intelligence services are stretched thin.) ISIS is working around the clock to get young, nihilistic recruits to move to Syria, not fan out across the globe. As Daniel Byman has pointed out, ISIS has denounced those who choose to leave its territory as committing “a dangerous major sin.” That’s why Hoda Muthana, a 20-year-old Alabama native and University of Alabama at Birmingham student, fled to Syria to join ISIS last year. If the jihadi group wanted a sleeper cell in Birmingham, it wouldn’t have needed Muthana to pack her bags. In his statement, Bentley admits that no Syrian refugees have settled in Alabama and that there are no current threats to his state.

But suppose ISIS’ tactics just changed. That in response to the military campaign launched against it, the terrorist group has decided to use the Syrian humanitarian tragedy as a means to funnel jihadis to Alabama or other U.S. states.

It takes anywhere from 18–24 months for a Syrian refugee to be cleared to live in the United States. First he or she must be registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. This agency interviews refugees, conducts background checks, takes their biometric data, and establishes whether they belong to one of roughly 45 “categories of concern” given their past lives and work history in Syria. Typically, the applicants are women and children. If anything looks amiss, they are pulled from consideration. Then the U.S. government begins its own vetting. The applicants are interviewed again, and their names and particulars are run through terrorism databases. They receive additional screening when they arrive in the United States and then again after their first year in the country.

This process has led to slightly more than 1,800 Syrians being admitted to the United States since 2011. None of them has landed in Alabama, but if that ever did happen, no one will ever have gone through a more painstaking and extensive vetting process where the reward was to live in Alabama.

There is another way to look at this: There may be no more difficult way for a would-be terrorist to enter the United States than to pose as a Syrian refugee. And if that was true last week, it is exponentially more difficult after the Paris attacks. If ISIS is looking to smuggle its operatives into the United States, there are far more effective ways to do so.

Then again, maybe everyone is missing the compassion hidden in Bentley’s desire to refuse Syrians admission to his state. According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Alabama has the second-worst quality of life in the United States. It has the “fifth lowest employment rate, the eighth highest homicide rate, and the tenth lowest household disposable income rate in the nation.” The Institute for Women’s Policy Research says Alabama is tied for the worst place for women to live. (More than 31 percent of women there work in low-wage jobs.) Alabama has high poverty and low life expectancy.

Alabama poses a greater risk to Syrian refugees than those refugees pose to Alabama. Syrian refugees are fleeing murder, rape, torture, barrel bombs, and chemical weapon attacks. Maybe they deserve something better than a state that has failed across almost every measure of government competence.

While Bentley and other governors simplistically contend to be acting in the best interests of their citizens, they have done nothing of the kind. Instead, they have handed ISIS an unexpected victory. ISIS wants Muslims to feel scorned, scared, and stigmatized. ISIS understands that alienated and aggrieved populations are the easiest to further radicalize. Bentley hasn’t only failed to make his citizens safer; he has given ISIS recruiters their newest talking point.

Syrians have risked everything to escape a murderous regime and the Islamic fanatics marauding across these lands. There may be no people who cling to life more than Syrian refugees, entire families who have boarded rafts and trekked thousands of miles to avoid certain death. Alabama would be lucky to have such people. But instead they are stuck with Bentley.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Paris attacks.