Engaging My Mind: (More) Thoughts on Syrian Refugees

Statue of Liberty

This past week, I’ve given a significant amount of time and energy to reading and thinking about the debate here in the United States surrounding the President’s plan to bring Syrian refugees to our shores. I’ve posted some arguments that appeal primarily to the heart (found here and here), as they fit a little more closely with the style and type of writing that I tend to employ here on this blog (and also because I find the arguments I’ve already made to be the most important), but as I’ve done my reading, I’ve found plenty to appeal to the mind, as well.

Because I’ve invested more than I probably should have in this issue, and because I process by writing, I’ve listed my thoughts in the hopes that this will help me move my time and attention to things that I can more directly influence. I share them here in the hopes that they will add to the conversation, demonstrate that the drive to resettle refugees here is not emotional but is instead thoughtful and spiritual, and, perhaps, help others solidify or change their thinking on this issue as well.

(For regular readers of this blog, my intent is to return to regularly scheduled programming soon.)

No matter which way your opinions lean on this particular issue, if you are at all interested in understanding it better, I hope you will read this and share your own thoughts on the matter as well. By engaging in a respectful and cogent discussion, we all benefit.

A few notes before I start: as a follower of Jesus, all of my thoughts are, I hope, influenced by my faith. That said, I think many of these arguments apply regardless of your particular belief system. And, to be perfectly clear, while I clearly believe that the Christian faith compels us to welcome the Syrian refugees, I also recognize that other believers may come to a different conclusion. You can (obviously) be a Christian and disagree with me in this matter.

Ultimately, my position boils down to a simple statement: God calls us to love others, to help the poor and the needy and the widow and the orphan, regardless of danger or the risk to ourselves. This does not preclude being wise; we should use all of the tools at our disposal to be prudent, to sort the good from the bad. However, no matter how wise we are, no matter how much information we have, there will always be risk when we choose to love others. We’re called to do so anyway – and I believe that involves keeping our borders open to Syrian refugees.

Buckle your seatbelts, folks. It’s going to be a long ride.

There are many arguments against resettling Syrian refugees in the United States. I’ve listed ten of them here, with my responses.

1. Resettling Syrian refugees in the US is a threat to national security.

The refugee process is a long, arduous one, with many steps and hurdles to overcome. Even being classified as a “refugee” is a difficult thing to accomplish. Beyond that, refugees who wish to resettle do not get to choose which country will be their new home: the UNHCR makes recommendations to the various nations involved in resettlement based upon many factors.

The current process to enter the US takes 18-24 months on average, and the extra screening required for Syrian and Iraqi refugees can extend it by an extra year. It involves background checks across multiple agencies, biometric screenings, and multiple in-person interviews with trained professionals. The 10,000 Syrians President Obama planned to bring here in the next year have been undergoing these screenings and waiting to enter the US for months, if not years.

Given how difficult the process is, it is highly unlikely that ISIS would use the refugee program to try to infiltrate the US when there are many other options available to them.

Some links:
This Facebook post about the general refugee process, from an immigration law attorney and pastor has been making the rounds. It’s worth a read. Also, it’s been turned into an infographic.
The transcript for a phone interview with three top-level officials in which the topic of Syrian refugees was discussed specifically and at length.
The Cato Institute published a lengthy post in which they argue that Syrian refugees don’t pose a serious threat. The information in this post is largely redundant with the other sources I listed, but I thought it worth including as it comes from a conservative think tank, and not somebody in the Obama administration.

2. FBI Director Comey stated that there are holes in their process for screening refugees.

In Congressional hearings in October, Director Comey stated, ““If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data. I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”

To me, this sounds more like somebody covering their bases than somebody who is opposed to the refugee program. There is, of course, risk in bringing anyone into our country – but that’s true whether they come from Syria or from England.

In addition, he was speaking specifically about background checks and the data available, not about the process as a whole.

Finally, he opposes the recent bill from Congress (which, if it really says that he must personally vouch for each refugee, it’s an impossible piece of legislation and we should all oppose it), and also believes that the FBI process is a good one.

I do recognize that politics play into this and that Director Comey is under pressure to support the President in this. That said, neither he nor President Obama want to see a terrorist attack on US soil. As much as I tend to disagree with the President, I do not believe he is evil – he doesn’t want to see innocent life lost. Beyond that, it would be a PR nightmare for both of them to tell us the program is good and then have that prove to be false.

3. In putting love ahead of security, you’re conflating the roles of the government and the roles of the Church.

For starters, I believe there’s ample evidence (given above) that shows that bringing Syrian refugees here does not pose much of a security risk to the United States.

That said, even if there was more danger involved in opening our borders, I still believe it would be the right thing to do. It’s a bit more complex in that instance, however, because the government and the Church do have different roles. Let me explain.

One of the government’s primary functions is to protect its citizens from foreign threats. If there were a significant security threat in allowing refugees to enter, then it would be right for the government to put national security first, ahead of other concerns. However, ours is a government for the people and by the people. In such a situation, I would hope that our elected officials would stand and say, “This is the situation, and this is the risk. Because my duty is to defend and protect this nation and its inhabitants, I am bound to deny entrance to these refugees. However, such an action flies in the face of this country’s values. It allows the terrorists to dictate who we will help. And so I ask you, my constituents, to rise up and tell me that this is not the action you want us to take on your behalf.”

I would then urge my fellow citizens to stand up and say, together, “We understand this risk and we are asking you to do this thing anyway,” and then our elected officials would have the duty to listen to the will of the people. As the Church, we are commanded to welcome and to care for the widows and the orphans, the needy and the suffering, and so we should petition our government to allow those people to come here so that we can do that.

4. We have enough problems here. Why aren’t we caring for our own homeless, veterans, [insert needy group of Americans here]?

The United States certainly has many domestic issues and concerns. Many of them have social programs to help address them. Helping needy people in other nations does not require us to get our own house in order first, for several reasons.

First, the United States has always had people in poverty. This has never prevented us from welcoming others; we have a long history of welcoming desperate, needy people who want to make better lives for themselves. It’s woven into our very fabric as a nation. We’re all familiar with the Statue of Liberty, and the poem at her base: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Every year, the United States welcomes refugees, with the cap of the total number accepted set by the President in conjunction with Congress. President Obama proposed raising the total number to 85,000 from 70,000 in recognition of the great need in the Middle East. The discussion about the Syrian refugees isn’t whether we should be helping refugees at all – it’s about where they might come from. Closing our borders to this specific group of refugees doesn’t free up money for domestic concerns; it just means others will come in their place.

In addition, because the process is such a long one, the refugees who would come in the next year have been in the queue for a long time – as long as two years, in some cases. We’ve spent dollars and man-hours vetting and interviewing and processing documents for those people. Shutting that door essentially wastes the effort already put into bringing them here.

Refugees are often highly motivated to integrate into their new country. The costs of travel are an interest-free loan from the government, and they sign a promissory note saying they will repay those costs within five years. Once here, they’re supported by local charities and volunteer organizations as they get on their feet. They are expected to find a job within 6 months. And most do – refugee men are employed at a higher rate than their natural-born peers.

5. We can’t solve the world’s problems. Why should we get involved?

As I stated above, we welcome a set number of refugees into our country every single year. This debate isn’t really about whether we should help refugees in general, but about whether we should allow refugees from this specific region to come.

In addition, no matter which way your political flag blows, most of us can agree that the current crisis in the Middle East and the rise of the so-called Islamic state has been largely the result of bungled US foreign policy in that area. Our action (and inaction) have contributed greatly to the amount of unrest over there, and so we have some responsibility to help set things right again.

The so-called Islamic State forces us to be involved. If the world collectively turns its back on the refugees flooding out of Syria and Iraq, where else do they have to go but to the arms of our common enemy? They will go back to destitution and poverty, to despair, to the terrorists. And that is a ripe breeding ground and recruitment tool for the jihadists – the terrorists of the next generation. The so-called Islamic State has made this our fight, our problem.

Finally, the sheer scale of this problem and the numbers of people flooding into Europe every day require Western nations to come to some sort of solution. The countries affected – Germany, Greece, France, and others – are our allies. We should not use the Atlantic Ocean as our excuse not to be involved.

6. Bringing refugees here is just a token gesture meant to make you feel better. It doesn’t address the full problem.

I don’t think anybody would argue that bringing 10,000 refugees to the United States is going to solve the current crisis, or even come close to solving it. To be honest, I don’t believe we’ll see a solution to this particular turmoil until Christ returns. But even if we can’t fix everything, we should help in the ways that we can.

The ways that we can help are many and varied, and I believe we should be pursuing each of them. We should all be giving dollars to organizations that are providing relief and succor to the refugees on the ground. (Samaritan’s Purse and Doctors Without Borders are two we’ve chosen to support, but there are many other good options). The US government should be considering what military and aid options to pursue, and working with the governments of Europe to find long-term solutions. We should pray. Ultimately, the goal should be to establish peace (or some semblance of peace) in the region so that these people can return home – something that most of them want to do.

Opening our borders, even to a select few, sends a clear message to the world and to ISIS that the United States will not be cowed. It tells our allies and our enemies that our values have not changed. It allows us to continue to be a beacon of hope for those in distress. It says that Americans care about our fellow human beings. Closing our borders, on the other hand, sends the message that if you have the misfortune of being born in a specific country, you are unwelcome here, regardless of your reasons for wanting to come, which is antithetical to the ideals upon which this nation were founded, and antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And while 10,000 people is a tiny fraction of the people who are in need right now, it wouldn’t be a “token gesture” to those 10,000. It would mean everything to them. Just because we can’t help everyone doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help those we can.

7. It’s more cost effective to care for them where they are.

Again, we welcome a set number of refugees every year. It’s an established program that’s welcomed 3 million people since 1975. Not helping these refugees doesn’t mean we’re freeing up dollars to help them in other ways; it means that other refugees from other parts of the world will come instead. (For whether we should be helping these refugees instead of others, see #5, above, and also note that we’re talking about 10,000 out of 85,000 – we’ll be accepting people from many other nations either way).

“Where they are” is an interesting question, isn’t it? Syria is a disaster. The refugee camps are overcrowded. People are flooding Europe, to the point where it’s overwhelming many of those nation’s resources.

And again, bringing refugees to the US isn’t a comprehensive solution. We aren’t talking about moving everyone here – just a few. Those who come must want to resettle (most don’t). Beyond that, the officials who determine who comes place first priority on those who have suffered compelling persecution for which no other durable solution exists. These are people who have witnessed terrible things, things that most of us can’t begin to imagine. They’re people whose home countries carry such horrendous memories that they do not want to go back – they’d rather go to another country (any country – remember, they don’t get to choose where they go), a country with a foreign language and a foreign culture, than return to the land of their birth.

8. What about your local neighbors? In loving these refugees, you’re putting those in this country in danger.

I don’t believe this is true, as I demonstrated in point #1 above, but even if it were, I’ll refer back to the idea that ours is a government for the people, by the people. My call is to my fellow citizens to hold on to who we are as a people, to stay true to our ideals and our values, even in the face of danger, even when we are afraid. I am not trying to make decisions for the others in this country – here, unlike in the refugee camps, we all have a voice – I am urging others in this country to stand up for those in need. I am asking fellow Christians to lead the charge in this, to say that we, as a nation, as a people, are those who welcome and love those in need, even if it involves risk. (And loving others, opening our hearts and homes to others, always involves risk).

9. If you want them here, are you going to house them?

This argument is not a particularly cogent one, and I don’t find it to be very helpful to the conversation in general, but I’ve seen it expressed often enough that I will address it.

A person can say that a course of action is a moral or right one without necessarily participating in that action. This might be for many reasons: lack of resources and other commitments are just a few. Saying that everyone who thinks we should bring refugees here should house them is akin to saying that everyone who opposes abortion should adopt babies or that everyone who opposes the death penalty should offer their homes to released convicts.

That said, many of the people who have expressed support for the President’s plan are more than willing to offer their homes to those who need it.

10. Muslims don’t integrate into American society. They are extremists. It threatens our culture to bring them here.

First, this is conflating Islam with the so-called Islamic state (Da’esh). John Mark Reynolds says it much better than I could, so read his post instead.

There are somewhere between 2 million to 7 million Muslims in the United States today. The vast majority of them live peaceably in their neighborhoods and are productive and contributing members of their communities.

And remember, we’re talking about 10,000 (desperate, needy) people (with no other good options). Coming to a country of 350 million. Could they bring crime with them? Yes. Could they bring danger? Yes. Should we love and help them anyway? Yes.

(Note: Europe is another matter entirely, and those countries have much to think about when it comes to integrating the vast flood of immigrants, none of whom are vetted and many of whom are sympathetic to the so-called Islamic state, as is evidenced in France.)

Ultimately, we’re talking about continuing a program that has been in place since the end of the Vietnam war and a legacy that has been in place since this country was founded. We’re talking, not about instituting some radical new agenda, but continuing a long history, enabling an already-funded process. We’re not talking about solving the world’s problems. We’re talking about helping 10,000 people – people who have witnessed brutality and evil that defies description – start a new life.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for bearing with me. My hope was to bring clarity to some of the questions surrounding this issue – both for myself and for others. If you see errors in my thinking or have a dissenting opinion, I welcome the conversation, provided it is respectful and kind.

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