Right now, the loudest voices in American politics don’t want Syrian refugees to come to America’s shores. “We have no idea who they’re letting into our country, and our country has enough problems,” said Donald Trump in an interview with ABC News’ Barbara Walters. “We have enough problems.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was even more adamant. “I do not trust this administration to effectively vet the people who are supposed to be coming in in order to protect the safety and security of the American people, so I would not permit them in,” said the Republican, who is trailing in the party’s presidential race. “The fact is that we need for appropriate vetting, and I don’t think that orphans under 5 should be admitted to the United States at this point.”
Others, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, want a religious test for refugees, and will propose legislation that bans Muslim Syrian refugees from entering the United States. “What Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are proposing is that we bring to this country tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees,” said Cruz in an interview with CNN on Monday. “I have to say particularly in light of what happened in Paris, that’s nothing short of lunacy.”
President Obama, who plans to continue refugee settlement in the United States, thinks this is ridiculous. “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out here in the course of this debate,” said Obama at a press conference in the Phillippines Wednesday morning. “ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there’s war between Islam and the West, and when you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility suggesting Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counter-productive. And it needs to stop.”
He continued this riff with a dig at Republicans who want to refuse refugees. “And I would add these are the same folks who suggested they’re so tough that just talk to Putin or staring down ISIL … but they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion. First they were worried the press was too tough on them in the debates; now they’re worried about 3-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.”
Conservatives have called this a “cheap shot,” but it’s not wrong. For all of their bellicose rhetoric, the refugee problem has left Republicans looking like paper tigers, at least with regard to the facts.
If Western Europe has a flood of refugees and a strained system for screening and vetting the influx, the United States has the opposite. Since October 2014, just 1,869 Syrians have come to the United States. Republicans like Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina say that Obama wants to bring an additional 100,000—or more—but that’s a gross exaggeration. At most, the White House has set a goal of bringing 10,000 Syrians to the country in the next year.
Moreover, and vital to questions of security, those 10,000 have undergone heavy scrutiny. First, there’s the usual process for refugees who want to come to the United States. After passing background checks, a potential refugee is referred to the United States from the United Nation’s refugee agency. Then, our government does its own screening, individually vetting each applicant. For Syrians, there’s an additional step:
Multiple law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies perform “the most rigorous screening of any traveler to the U.S.,” says a senior administration official. Among the agencies involved are the State Department, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS officer conducts in-person interviews with every applicant. Biometric information such as fingerprints are collected and matched against criminal databases. Biographical information such as past visa applications are scrutinized to ensure the applicant’s story coheres.
About half pass this process and make their way to the United States. Once here, they go through additional screening, take a three-day class on basic information about the United States, and are relocated. Refugees lose their status after one year, at which point they must apply for permanent resident status. Also, only 2 percent of those that come to the United States are men of military age. The vast majority are women, children, and the elderly.
Put simply, if you’re a militant who wants to come to the U.S. to commit violence, there are far easier ways than posing as a refugee. Indeed, if ISIS is serious about attacking American soil, the easiest path is through homegrown extremists—of the eight suspects in the Paris attacks, six were citizens of France or Belgium.
Republicans are demonstrably wrong about Syrian refugees resettling in the United States, and President Obama is right to mock them for it. But it would be a mistake for either Obama or his allies to dismiss public fear in the wake of Paris. Even if there’s little threat from refugees, it’s understandable that Americans are afraid of what could happen here. Better to acknowledge this fear and reassure the public with facts than to ignore it and leave an opening for the demagoguery of much of the Republican Party.