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Dear politicians who want to bar Syrian refugees: here are 6 ways you're wrong

Jeb Bush.
Jeb Bush.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

French investigators were still working to confirm the identities of the terrorists who'd rampaged across Paris when, on Monday, 22 United States governors announced that in response, they would block any Syrian refugees from resettling in their states. In Washington, some Republican lawmakers suggested they would seek legislation to dismantle federal programs for Syrian refugees. Presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz said the US should either restrict or "focus" resettlement on Christians only. Chris Christie said he would not even allow for a 3-year-old orphan to be resettled.

Their argument is that Syrian refugees pose a greater-than-acceptable threat to national security, and therefore all must be blocked from entering the United States. Here are six points I would ask them to consider in response.

1) Governors: You do not have the authority to refuse Syrian refugees, and you surely know it

When state governors pledge to block Syrian refugees from resettling in their states, they are making an empty promise. As Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress explains, "There is no lawful means that permits a state government to dictate immigration policy to the president in this way":

As the Supreme Court explained in Hines v. Davidowitz, "the supremacy of the national power in the general field of foreign affairs, including power over immigration, naturalization and deportation, is made clear by the Constitution." States do not get to overrule the federal government on matters such as this one.

American governors are typically pretty good at knowing where their legal authority begins and ends, and indeed often have lawyers on staff available to adjudicate such issues, so I am going to offer a theory: Governors know that they cannot actually block Syrian refugees. They are issuing these refugee resettlement bans knowing full well they will never happen.

If that is indeed the case, then that means one of two things. Either state governors are hoping to build political momentum for a federal ban on Syrian refugees or they are hoping to exploit fear of refugees for political gain, or, perhaps most likely, both. In any case, this is just to say to governors that it's pretty clear there is more going on here.

2) You are not the first person to think of vetting refugees. In fact, the US is pretty good at it.

Gokhan Sahin/Getty

Syrian refugees at a refugee camp in Turkey. (Gokhan Sahin/Getty)

There's an odd tendency when politicians argue for refusing entry to refugees to talk as if no one had ever before considered the problem of security or that it might be worth vetting resettlement applicants for potential security risks.

In fact, the US has extremely stringent vetting processes and standards for refugee resettlement candidates — standards so cumbersome and onerous, requiring mounds of paperwork and series of interviews, that even refugees who perfectly qualify must wait months and are frequently turned away.

In Europe, refugees arrive in huge numbers to places like Greece and Italy. European governments do indeed have security controls in place, but the scale and immediacy of the problem is simply leagues beyond anything America faces. Boats of refugees are not washing up on the Maryland shore. We only need to resettle as many refugees as we choose to, and we can put them through whatever process we like before they arrive. And that process is indeed a doozy.

Slate's Williams Dobson sums up the process here:

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.

Yet to listen to anti-refugee politicians, you would think that none of these safeguards or processes existed.

So when, for example, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder demands that the Department of Homeland Security look into security vetting processes, and insists he will accept no refugees until it does, it's a little like angrily insisting that his state will allow no commercial flights until the Federal Aviation Administration provides some answers on its plan to prevent midair collisions. The FAA does have a plan. It's a good plan. And we know this because it's been doing it successfully for years.

3) The Paris attackers do not even appear to be Syrian refugees

The lesson a lot of anti-refugee politicians seem to have drawn from Paris is that Syrian refugees are a threat. But this makes little sense because, so far, the Paris attackers who have been identified are all European Union citizens, not Syrian refugees;

"Let me underline, the profile of the terrorists so far identified tells us this is an internal threat," Federica Mogherini, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, said after a meeting with EU foreign ministers. "It is all EU citizens so far. This can change with the hours, but so far it is quite clear it is an issue of internal domestic security."

And European Union officials have been quite clear on this. The lesson from Paris is that Europe has an internal security problem. Not a problem with terrorists sneaking in among refugees.

Only one attacker was identified with a Syrian passport, and while Greek authorities say someone with that passport did recently enter Greece through an island that is a frequent refugee landing spot, French officials have found that the passport is fake. It's still a big question mark.

But we don't have to go on one case of a fake mystery passport — a number of the attackers have been positively identified. They are all European Union citizens. Most of them are French or Belgian nationals.

If we wanted to deal with the threat of potential terrorism by shutting out certain national groups — we shouldn't, but if we did — then it would make far, far more sense to refuse French and Belgian visitors than Syrians.

So either the people calling for shutting out Syrians haven't yet heard the news that this attack was primarily led by Europeans, or else they do know this fact and are targeting Syrians for some other reason.

4) Europe's threat is radicalization. America doesn't have that problem.

The lesson of the Paris attacks is that the danger comes not from Syrian refugees but rather from the danger that a European national might "radicalize" and turn to terrorism. That is indeed a very real and serious problem for Europe.

But that's not really a problem for the United States. In Western Europe, for complex reasons owing to histories of colonialism and European national identities not always inclusive to racial and religious minorities, Muslim communities endure high unemployment rates and low levels of integration. In France, for example, laws banning religious garments in public have helped to give Muslims an impression that they are not welcome.

America, for all its very real problems with Islamophobia, turns out to be not too bad at living up to its ideals when it comes to accepting and integrating Muslim Americans. And that reduces the threat of radicalization dramatically.

A 2007 Pew report titled "Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream" shows a community far more integrated than those of Europe. In the US, 47 percent think of themselves as Muslim first and American second, but that proportion increases to 81 percent in the UK and to about two-thirds in Germany and Spain.

US Muslims are economically comparable to the general population; they are just as likely to be middle class and are only 2 percent more likely to be lower class. But Western European Muslims are much more likely to be lower class. In the UK, 61 percent of Muslim families make less than ₤20,000. In Spain, 7 percent make less than €14,500.

There are real indications that American Muslims aren't just integrated — they're buying into the American dream. According to the Pew survey, 71 percent of American Muslims believe they "can get ahead with hard work" — an important sign of faith and investment in the American system — compared with only 64 percent of Americans overall. US Muslims are devout capitalists: They are 13 percent more likely to be self-employed or small-business owners than the general population.

Encouragingly, 38 percent are satisfied with the state of the United States, true of only 32 percent of the general US population. And before you try to argue that refugees or migrants are less likely to integrate, that number rises to 45 percent among foreign-born Muslims, who are more optimistic than their native-born counterparts on every measure.

I don't want to gloss over the question of how and why Europeans might radicalize or how we should think about that problem — it's complicated, and we'll try to explore it in depth very soon. But the point is that Muslim alienation and lack of integration just aren't problems we have in America. Muslim communities in America are the best antibodies we have against the threat of radicalization, and they're doing a great job because the American dream is pretty good!

5) Turning away Syrian refugees in fact helps ISIS

Refusing Syrian refugees, or restricting them only to Christians as Ted Cruz and others advocate, is not good for American national security as you claim. Rather, it is bad for national security because it directly aids ISIS, both ideologically and materially, by giving the group evidence that the West is hostile toward Muslims and Syrians.

This point has been made over and over this week, by just about every prominent terrorism expert in the United States, and that should tell you something. There is expert consensus here. Listen to the experts.

ISIS is hurt when Western countries accept refugees because this undermines its propaganda of a war between Islam and the West. ISIS is helped when the West shuts out Syrian refugees because that promotes its propaganda. It also keeps refugees stuck in overcrowded and underfunded refugee camps in the Middle East — an ideal opportunity for ISIS to recruit and radicalize potential fighters.

6) You are putting yourself on the wrong side of history

If we want to be generous, we might say that American politicians are calling for refusing Syrian refugees because they do not understand any of the above points and believe that forbidding refugees is a tough but necessary call to protect national security.

If we do not want to be generous, we might ask whether these politicians perhaps do understand that they are not actually helping national security, but nonetheless see short-term political gain for themselves by ginning up fear of people who are different.

In some ways, the question of motivation isn't even that important if the effect is the same: thousands of Syrians who are desperate to flee violence and terror to make new lives in America, where they might not just be saved but contribute to American society in turn, are being denied that for basically no material upside to anyone.

Even if politicians might see some political benefit to themselves — and, indeed, anti-refugee sentiment and fearmongering is proving to be popular — then even that is not going to last long. The history of anti-migration sentiment in America makes it pretty clear: Any political reward you reap today for opposing the resettlement of imperiled populations will, in time, sour. You will be remembered as on the wrong side of history.

Consider, for example, American politicians in the 1920s and 1930s who opposed resettling European refugees who were fleeing political or religious persecution. That included a number of, though not exclusively, European Jews. Public opposition to accepting these groups was high, as the Washington Post's Ishaan Tharoor writes, and politicians could do well by opposing it.

Those politicians are today looked back upon as unforgivable monsters who participated, however indirectly, in allowing the deaths of thousands of Europeans who might've been saved had the US accepted more refugees. Syria is of course not Nazi Germany, and the Middle East is not on the verge of a world war. That said, Syria's civil war has so far killed at least 250,000 people, according to an old and certainly low estimate, and it will continue killing many more.

A fact of democracy is that politicians are incentivized to do whatever will be popular with their constituents; it's how they get elected and reelected. But even by the most craven political calculus it is worth considering whether your name will be entered in the history books as an example of cowardice and bigotry or an example of courage and American values.

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