In the aftermath of the horror last weekend, a lively discussion has broken-out over the United States’s role in sheltering Syrian refugees. The issue came into focus shortly after the attacks when it was discovered that one of the Paris attackers was carrying a Syrian passport that was used to enter Europe through Greece as a refugee from Syria.
The United States has already taken in 1,800 refugees from Syria over the last few years. And President Obama intends to resettle about 10,000 more in the United States in the coming months. Just yesterday morning, President Obama reaffirmed that commitment and upbraided Senator Ted Cruz (though not by name) for suggesting a religious test for future refugees. The President insisted that our security procedures are sufficient and that the U.S. would go ahead as planned.
After that speech, a majority of the nation’s governors announced that they would not allow any of those 10,000 into their states. And now the issue is front and center before the American people. What are we to think about this?
On the one hand, I am heart-broken about the refugees fleeing persecution in Syria. They are women, children, and families who have undergone horrific abuses at the hands of their own government and at the hands of Isis. Some of them are Christians. They are not all terrorists, and it is unconscionable to imagine turning all of them away. On the other hand, we know that at least one terrorist has used the EU’s refugee program to gain access to France to conduct attacks in Paris. Couldn’t the same thing happen here?
I don’t think this is an easy issue. And I agree with Trevin Wax that we need to have “prudent compassion” as we think about resettling refugees from Syria. But what does that look like in terms of an actual policy? Here’s what I hope we’ll see:
(1) I hope that the United States can continue receiving at least some of those who are fleeing persecution in Syria. There are apparently about 4 million of them right now, so obviously we can’t accept all of them. But I hope that we find a way to accept some.
(2) Because our government has the God-given responsibility to distinguish refugees from terrorists (Rom. 13:3-4), any refugee policy that doesn’t make that distinction has to change. In other words, we cannot allow a refugee policy that has a high likelihood of being exploited by terrorists who wish to carry-out attacks in our country. It is neither prudent nor compassionate to put innocent citizens at that kind of risk.
(3) We need assurances from our government that our vetting of refugees works. President Obama said yesterday that our refugee vetting procedures are “rigorous.” The President of the International Rescue Committee agrees and believes that the risk of terrorist infiltration is no concern. Yet President Obama’s own FBI director testified to Congress just last month that our vetting procedures are not sufficient, saying “My concern there is there are certain gaps … in the data available to us.”
In particular, the lack of solid on-the-ground intelligence assets in Syria has clouded the U.S.’s ability to crosscheck the backgrounds of every refugee hoping to come to the U.S., Comey and other national security officials told the Senate panel (source).
There is a wide gap between what President Obama said yesterday morning in his speech and what his own FBI director testified last month. It seems to me that this has to change if citizens are going to have any confidence in our government’s program to resettle refugees into the homeland. A temporary moratorium on the status quo may be in order until this gets sorted out.
(4) We need to explore other ways of helping refugees until the refugee policy is clarified and all the relevant agencies (FBI, CIA, DOD, etc.) have reasonable confidence that it will work. Can we resettle women and children while making other arrangements for young fighting-age men whose status cannot be verified? Can we make a haven for refugees offshore? Are there other nations in the region that we can offer incentives to resettle a share of our refugees? I don’t know what the answer here is, but surely there are other possibilities besides giving needy people the stiff-arm while we get our security situation in order. I would like to see our government work that out.
I do not pretend to have all the answers here. And even what I have suggested above is provisional. At best, these suggestions do not amount to actual policy but to policy goals. In any case, I don’t have confidence in the status quo, so we need our government to do its job here and to come up with solutions that work. The debate goes on, and we need to be paying attention as it does.
UPDATE: Right after I posted this blog, I noticed that Kevin DeYoung has some really helpful reflections here. I think he probably says things better than I have here, so go read it. His conclusion:
The issue of immigration—both for those inside the country already and for those wanting to get in—is bound to be a pressing political, international, and humanitarian concern for many years. We need Christian writers, thinkers, pastors, scholars, and activists to be a part of the conversation. My plea is that the conversation reflect the complexity of the situation and goes beyond the familiar dichotomies of love versus hate, inclusion versus exclusion, and fear versus compassion. There are too many important things, and too many human lives, at stake to move quite so quickly from solid Christian principles to simple policy prescriptions.
UPDATE #2: This from Ben Domenech is also on point. Beware of pieties masquerading as policy.
Remember something as you watch the refugee coverage coming in the next few days, highlighting the xenophobia and underlying bigotry of Americans and particularly Republicans: the other side of this argument will not actually engage in a debate. They refuse to admit any possibility of cynicism or skepticism about the virtue of this approach. They jump right past the point of admitting that yes, some terrorists could be among this migrant population, and that yes, this could potentially lead to the deaths of hundreds or thousands of innocent American civilians. And in doing so, they skip right past the argument they would need to make – that those risks are worth it. They won’t even admit there are any risks. And that’s why their position – noble, pious, and insulated – will find little truck with Americans who have more practical concerns, such as: will any of these people try to kill me?
The media’s response to that question may be: That’s racist or bigoted or backward. But that is not an answer that will satisfy.