“‘I am not going to be a slave or a wife. Even if I am stupid and talk funny and get sick, I won’t let you turn me into a slave or a wife. I’m getting out of here. I can’t stand living here anymore’… They reached again and again for a high note, yearning toward a high note, which they found at last and held—an icicle in the desert.” –Maxine Hong Kingston
I didn’t really understand anything about “Islam” or “Mohammed” as a child, but I knew the Muslim family down the block in our sleepy Virginia neighborhood was lovely. The father was a soldier like mine, and like mine, he was away a lot, going about the difficult business of serving his country during the turbulent Clinton years. The mother wore the hijab and took care that their daughter did, too. She was best friends with my mother, a devoutly evangelical Christian, and would often babysit us in her home, with her young son and daughter.
This friendly Muslim neighbor woman introduced my younger siblings and me to the saporific wonders of curry and taught us some basic awareness of Islamic culture, like that they did not celebrate Christmas like we Christians (i.e., everybody else). And if memory serves, the first time I visited Philadelphia (and crossed the Mason-Dixon Line) was on a trip where we met some of her kin. In that quaint Virginia town, our families most often came together, frequently with other neighbors, for the holy rituals we all could celebrate together as American patriots: watching football. For the bigger games, like the Super Bowl, the father might even throw a party and play host to a full living room of rowdy soldiers, spouses, and kids.
Like so many others, I never saw that family again after the Army moved us elsewhere. But I remember them fondly, and it is perhaps for having known them—and others I would eventually meet, like my Pakistani best friend in high school—that I never developed a generalized fear of Muslims or idle suspicion of Islamic paraphernalia after the trauma of 9/11 and all that came later. Call it one of the many prejudices from which my multicultural Army upbringing shielded me.
I often think of those Muslims I knew growing up amid the ongoing debate about whether America should accept a small sliver—and 10,000 is but a drop in a restless ocean—of Syrian refugees. It’s not so much that I think those ghosts of my past and these modern victims of Islamism have much in common besides the Quran. Rather, it amazes me how many politicians have rushed to posture overmuch about how the Islamists and their victims also have in common the Quran. The sober, responsible leaders we elected these politicians to be ought to meet panic and anxiety with calm and reason—like focusing on the vital task of how to integrate refugees from the brutal reach of Daesh (an appropriately derogatory term for ISIL) into the norms and values of Western civilization—rather than grandstand about means (imagined in the case of governors) to block or expel them. But instead, we see the politics of fear and the exploitation of fear that, to his credit, George W. Bush nobly resisted in his presidency.
The first failing, of course, comes at the top. President Obama failed so spectacularly to make a compelling case for his administration’s ability to vet incoming refugees that the House of Representatives just passed a bill to implement its own preferred security regime over the administration’s objections with veto-proof, bipartisan support. Strangely, taking immature partisan swipes at how the more-than-just-GOP skepticism of his refugee plan is “scared of 3-year-old orphans” did not help.
Rather than churlishly mocking reasonably concerned Americans who look to the President for critical, life-or-death assurances, Obama and top security officials should have focused all along on painstakingly educating the public about the contours and reliability of the security apparatus that will vet all refugees and keep us safe. If the administration needs advice on how to do this, they could look to the empathetic, conciliatory way sometime Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addressed the concerns of refugee-skeptic Gov. Robert Bentley, among other governors, at conference in their native Alabama. In fact, he might have been wise to reach out to her and other leaders, like devout Christian churches, in that sagely humanitarian effort as he dutifully balances compassion and security. But we have learned not to expect such perspicacity from this White House.
Still, there is failure all around. The callous dismissal of the plight of refugee children, as we see from the likes of Chris Christie, is part and parcel of the disconnect between Christian governors attempting to pause or block refugees and Christian leaders—evangelical, Catholic, and mainline Protestant—actively preaching for a more humanitarian response as the Christian duty of believers. Likewise, various politicians’ apparent disinterest in a perceived surge of anti-Muslim hostility hews too closely to a climate of fear and fearmongering than to the kind of mindsets our leaders should encourage.
Sober leaders should remind us of facts and critical nuance as we face tough, complicated decisions. This would include explaining why it matters that the Tsarnaev brothers were not refugees but recipients of asylum who entered the country on a tourist visa. To be resettled in the United States, refugees must undergo extensive evaluation after an initial referral from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
From the State Department:
The [Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs)] collect biographic and other information from the applicants to prepare for the adjudication interview and for security screening. Enhanced security screening is a joint responsibility of the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security and includes the participation of multiple U.S. Government security agencies.
Officers from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) review all the information that the RSC has collected and also conduct an in-person interview with each refugee applicant before deciding whether to approve him or her for resettlement in the United States.
All USCIS-approved refugees undergo a health screening to identify medical needs and to ensure that those with a contagious disease, such as tuberculosis, do not enter the United States. Finally, the RSC requests a “sponsorship assurance” from a U.S.-based resettlement agency that is experienced in providing assistance to newly arrived refugees. Most refugees undergo a brief U.S. cultural orientation course prior to departure for the United States.
United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is comprised of:
- The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) of the U.S. Department of State.
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
- The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Five international or nongovernmental organizations operating Resettlement Support Centers around the world under the supervision and funding of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) of the U.S. Department of State
- Nine domestic nongovernmental organizations with a total of about 350 affiliated offices across the United States.
- Thousands of private citizens who volunteer their time and skills to help refugees resettle in the United States.
The total processing time varies depending on an applicant’s location and other circumstances, but the average time from the initial UNHCR referral to arrival as a refugee in the United States is about 18-24 months.
In contrast to the intensive refugee process, tourists, including those who eventually seek asylum, face much lower barriers of entry. That asylees, unlike refugees, are already in the country when they seek asylum status (in addition to international legal requirements) to stay may explain much of the difference in screening. But in any case, terrorists have a variety of other ways to get into the U.S. (if they are not already here), and each of those ways is quicker and easier than going through the refugee process. Attempting to block refugees to fight terrorism would be even worse security theater—providing the illusion of security with none of the substance—than the useless TSA. Whereas the TSA is mostly just inconvenient (on a good day), the anti-refugee campaign actively puts and keeps lives in danger without doing anything whatsoever to prevent terrorist attacks.
This is not to say there is no risk that a terrorist may slip in among refugees—the possibility certainly exists, but in truth, the refugees do not pose a serious security threat. Moreover, any terrorists who could make it through the refugee screening process, which is the most strenuous we have, could easily arrive through other means, which remain available if refugee status is denied them. The only reason a terrorist would deliberately seek the difficult and unnecessary refugee route would be to poison the well between the vast majority of resettled Muslims looking to be peaceful, hardworking contributors to society and the broader Christian public. But, again, they do not need to go that route and can still come if it is denied them.
It is also worth driving home the point that 10,000 is basically a rounding error compared to the numbers of refugees and what other countries are taking. Neighboring Muslim-majority countries are hosting the lion’s share, and there is doubtlessly more we could do to help them there:
In light of the paltry American numbers, the rise of comparisons to the Holocaust and Japanese internment, common among as disparate groups as liberal activists and the Southern Baptist Convention, are as poignant as they are compelling for many of us who believe on some level we are, when the blood cries out, our brother’s keeper. But it would be uncharitable not to acknowledge that one can sympathize with the Holocaust Museum and still hold, as many do, that the specific threat of Islamic terrorism makes the Syrian situation different from our deplorable indifferent to the earlier plight of German Jewry.
It would be absurd to pretend, as the Obama administration and allied progressives often do, that the tactics, goals, and other evils of Daesh and other Islamists have nothing to do with their Islamic faith. Critics of the administration are right and fair to point this out. But it is one thing to demand an honest reckoning of how sincere Islamic belief forms a cornerstone of systemic violence and illiberal terror. It is quite another to consign the predominately Muslim victims of Islamic extremism to the cruelty of a neo-Inquisition because they happen to believe in the same prophet. It would be even worse to double down, like Donald Trump, on the crescendoing echoes to the crisis of World War II by entertaining the (unconstitutional) identity politicking tactics of the thwarted fascists of yesteryear. No, Donald Trump and fans, we will not be closing down mosques, instituting religious segregation, or devising a national database of religious minorities. It is bizarre that such things may need to be said, but we live in interesting times.
In a recent study, the Pew Research Center found, unsurprisingly, that the great majority of Muslims closest to Daesh regard the organization with fear and loathing. Israelis and Palestinians seem rarely to see eye-to-eye politically, and tensions remain high with Palestinian radicals repeatedly attacking and murdering innocent Jews. But even amid all that mutual hostility, the Jews and Muslims of the Holy Land hold overwhelmingly negative views of Daesh. It turns out, the Quran and ties to the desert are just about all the Islamists and their Muslims victims have in common.
The Syrian refugees are fleeing a scourge so evil it has managed to align the disparate interests of the United States and Russia, Israel and Iran. If America is to be the beacon, that shining city on a hill President Reagan envisioned, we must prove equal to our values. We must, as patriots of a civilized nation, take in these refugees and turn them into loyal, hardworking Americans whose living well among us will represent the clarity of our moral and civilizational superiority to everything the barbarians promote.
In the end, welcoming these tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free is in our own national self-interest. We are at war with barbarian hordes, as vicious as they are shrewd, for the very nature of the human condition. We need every ally of every faith to repel the darkness of Daesh with the triumph of the human resilience that reflects in us the unyielding image of God. To take in the refugees from the barbarian advance is to win converts to the Western principles of freedom which America must always exemplify. And, as with resettled Afghans from an earlier conflict, today’s refugees may make tomorrow’s American soldiers who will continue the cycle of life and heroism.
As the Gipper once said, soon after taking office in the house Jimmy Carter left:
We shall continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries. We shall also, with other countries, continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.
Let us be true to our traditions.