3Qs: The US response to the Syrian refugee crisis

The terrorist attacks in Paris have intensified the immigration debate over whether the U.S. should accept Syrian refugees. On Thursday, the House voted to approve tougher refugee screening, passing a bill that the White House promised to veto. The House measure, said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader, “increases the standards to keep those who want to do us harm out.” Speaking after meeting with Canada’s new prime minister on Thursday, President Barack Obama said: “That somehow [Syrian refugees] pose a more significant threat than all the tourists who pour into the United States every single day just doesn’t jive with reality.”

We asked Rachel Rosen­bloom, an immi­gra­tion policy expert and a law professor at Northeastern University, to weigh in on the U.S. response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

First of all, what do we know about the Syrian refugees who have already entered the U.S.? What’s the vetting process like, how many have been admitted, and where are they living?

The United States has a very long and complicated process for selecting refugees for resettlement. First, refugees are screened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Those who make it through UNHCR’s vetting then undergo multiple layers of biometric screening and background checks by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. The process can easily take two years, and sometimes much longer.

So far, only about 1,500 Syrian refugees have arrived in the U.S., the majority of them women and children. To put this number in perspective, Lebanon has taken in more than 1 million Syrian refugees, Turkey has taken in nearly 2 million, and Germany has pledged to accept hundreds of thousands. Even if the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. rises to 10,000, as President Obama has pledged, this would really just be a very small step to respond to the gravest humanitarian crisis of our era.

 According to the State Department's Refugee Processing Center, California has received 251 Syrian refugees, Texas has received 242, Michigan has received 206, Arizona has received 168, and Illinois has received 157 since January 2012. Animation by Lee Delulio/Northeastern University.

Since January 2012, California has received 251 Syrian refugees, Texas has received 242, Michigan has received 206, Arizona has received 168, and Illinois has received 157. Source: The U.S. State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. Animation: Lee Delulio/Northeastern University.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has called for the immediate suspension of the refugee program, saying that “we cannot allow terrorists to take advantage of our compassion.” But data suggests that refugees who seek asylum in the U.S. do not carry out terrorist attacks. According to the widely circulated report in The Economist, of the more than 750,000 refugees who have moved to the U.S. since 9/11, none have been arrested on charges of domestic terrorism. Why, then, have many American lawmakers voiced such strong opposition to allowing Syrian refuges into this country?

Any attempt to link Syrian refugees to the threat of terrorism is xenophobic scaremongering, pure and simple. Of all of the ways that a person can enter the U.S., the refugee resettlement process is the most difficult and involves the most stringent security screening. No one affiliated with a group such as ISIS would want to go anywhere near such a process.

It is particularly disturbing to see politicians use this crisis to inflame anti-Muslim bias. It is also disturbing to see so many governors—including our own, here in Massachusetts—announcing that they will not allow Syrian refugees to settle in their states. Any attempt to keep Syrian refugees out of a particular state would not only be misguided. It would also be patently unconstitutional.

Many people have begun comparing the Syrian refugee crisis to the plight of Jewish refugees in World War II, pointing to a 1939 Gallup poll showing that some 61 percent of Americans did not want the U.S. government to take in German Jewish refugee children. What are the similarities and differences between the Syrian and Jewish crises?

Unfortunately, resistance to accepting refugees is a familiar part of our political landscape. We are seeing such resistance now with regard to refugees from Syria, but we also saw it just last year when many politicians opposed providing refuge to unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America. Looking back at the opposition to accepting Jewish refugees in the 1930s serves as a potent reminder of the tragic consequences that such xenophobia can have. It was the horror of the Holocaust that led to the drafting of the International Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and to the creation of our modern refugee resettlement system. The reason that many Jewish groups have spoken out this week in favor of accepting Syrian refugees is that the Jewish community understands only too well the consequences of our current inaction.