With Arms Half Open

The United States Responds to the Refugee Crisis

by Wilson Cusack

published December 4, 2015

The terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 brought new urgency to the discussion of how the United States should respond to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis. More than anything, the attacks have provided fodder for those who are afraid that accepting refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq will lead to similar terror attacks in the US. Many of the GOP presidential candidates have been particularly vocal opponents of taking in refugees, and have condemned President Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.

In an interview with Fox News, Ted Cruz said, “President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s idea that we should bring tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees to America—it is nothing less than lunacy.” Later, he added that “Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them.” He also said in the interview that Muslim refugees should be sent to “majority-Muslim countries.” Ben Carson sent letters to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, encouraging them to pass legislation “that terminates all public funding for any ongoing federal programs that seek to resettle refugees and/or migrants from Syria into the United States.” In a November 14 statement on his website, Mike Huckabee said that the US should “close our borders instead of Guantanamo.” Donald Trump said he would not only ban Syrian refugees from coming to America but would deport the ones that are already here. He suggested that the US could build them “a big beautiful safe zone” in Syria where they could live. 

The fear is not limited to GOP candidates, or even to Republicans. Though a CBS News Poll conducted after the Paris attacks showed that 68% of Republicans opposed letting Syrian refugees into the United States—compared to 36% of Democrats—77% of Democrats still said they “think it is necessary for Syrian refugees who want to come to the United States to go through a stricter security clearance process than they do now.”

Fear of terrorist attacks by Syrian refugees is misplaced, especially if that fear is fueled by the recent attacks in Paris. Investigators are still sorting out exactly where all nine of the attackers came from, but at most two of them came to Europe posing as refugees—the rest were European nationals. This means that they could have come to the US with the same (lack of) scrutiny as every other European national, and it also suggests that barring Syrian refugees from entering the country would do nothing to prevent such an attack from happening in the US.

The conditions under which refugees may enter the US are also drastically different from those in Europe. Several European countries are daily receiving hundreds of refugees, which makes screening nearly impossible. The US screens refugees from a distance in a process that, contrary to popular perception, is already highly intensive and can take up to two years to complete. Jacobin magazine describes the screening process of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which refers refugees to the US:

“…each applicant goes through background checks, followed by face-to-face interviews with trained interrogators from agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. They check applicants’ testimonies against one another for inconsistencies, and they collect detailed biographical and biometric data.”

Senator Marco Rubio has suggested that these background checks are not trustworthy due to a lack of data: “The problem is we can’t background check them. You can’t pick up the phone and call Syria.” But he is overstating the problem: a senior State Department official recently described Syria as having a “very, very heavily documented population.”         The UNHCR accepts less than one percent of the world’s refugee population and the US to date has accepted only 2,200 of the 22,457 refugees that the UNHCR has referred. Because the US has asked the UNHCR to prioritize the most vulnerable refugees, only two percent are single men of military-service age. About half of those the US has accepted are children; the rest are mothers, the elderly, and people who have been tortured or who need special medical assistance.

Russell Berman wrote in an article for The Atlantic: “In the 14 years since September 11, 2001, the United States has resettled 784,000 refugees from around the world...And within that population, three people have been arrested for activities related to terrorism. None of them were close to executing an attack inside the US, and two of the men were caught trying to leave the country to join terrorist groups overseas.”




The number of refugees admitted to the US thus far has been shockingly low: 200 between 2011 and 2014, 2,200 to date. But the proposed numbers—10,000 under the current White House plan and 65,000 as suggested by Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley—also fall short compared to other countries and to prior policy in the US.

In comparison to other Western countries, 10,000 refugees is a low quota. Germany has pledged to spend $6.6 billion to cope with the 800,000 refugees expected to arrive over the next year and after the November 13 attack, French President Francois Hollande reaffirmed the country’s commitment to take in 30,000 refugees over the next two years. Both of these countries are much smaller than the US in terms of geography, economy, and population. And that is to say nothing of Syria’s neighbors: there are an estimated 2.2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon, and 1.4 million in Jordan.

Moreover, the US’ projected intake falls short of previous responses to refugee crises. The US accepted over 200,000 refugees per year during the early 1980s, the largest percentage of which came from Vietnam. We have accepted tens of thousands of refugees from Cuba, Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda.




In his weekly address this Thanksgiving week, President Obama got at another aspect of the debate, which is that our resistance to taking in those who are being persecuted and forced to leave their homes runs contrary to both the ideas that created America and to the best of what America imagines itself to be today. Obama compared the refugees to pilgrims on the Mayflower, who themselves were fleeing “persecution and violence in their native land.” In an interview just last year, Ted Cruz showed that he, at least, still imagines the US to be such a haven: “We have welcomed refugees—the tired, huddled masses—for centuries. That’s been the history of the United States. We should continue to do so. We have to continue to be vigilant to make sure those coming are not affiliated with terrorists, but we can do that.”

Cruz’s quote suggests that he still wants America to be a welcoming destination—but only for Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghani Christians. Many other GOP candidates have also suggested we should prioritize helping persecuted Christians. It is true that Christians have been specifically targeted by ISIS in Syria and Iraq and have been subjected to brutal crimes: Mosul, Iraq was home to one of the largest Christian communities in the world before ISIS invaded and either murdered or expelled them all, and there have been videos posted on Facebook of ISIS beheading groups of Christians. But it is also true that homosexuals have been targeted, having been thrown off roofs, hung, or, in a video similar to the execution of the Christians, lined up and shot. Yet Cruz and his constituents have asked for no special treatment of homosexual refugees. And regardless of this double standard, a conversation about who has it worse is inappropriate when the vast majority of the 14 million Syrian refugees are the Muslims whom so many want to turn away.

Whether it is the rejection of refugees, drone warfare, or unhindered data collection on US citizens, actions taken to quash the threat of terror always tiptoe around the question: just what is the US willing to sacrifice in the name of security? The resistance to taking in refugees and the xenophobia that has pervaded debates in this election cycle beg the question of whether the imagined vision of the US as a place of refuge, welcoming the “tired, huddled masses” is just that: imaginary. On November 18, Obama tweeted “Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values. That's not who we are. And it's not what we're going to do.”


WILSON CUSACK B’16 is trying to figure it out