(Photo credit: PBS)
In 1939, the MS St. Louis steamed away from the United States back towards Europe, its Jewish passengers’ fates thrown back to the simmering cauldron of Europe. Of the 900 or so passengers on the liner, more than 250 would be killed in the Holocaust. In the same year, Congress also rejected a bill that would have allowed for 20,000 mostly Jewish German children to come to the United States. The liberation of the concentration camps brought home images that weighed heavily on the American conscience and arguably shaped a course towards a more refugee-friendly posture in the following decades. Tragically, this welcoming attitude is beginning to erode in the face of an anti-immigrant populist movement in American politics. While it is the moral imperative of the United States to continue accepting refugees from war-torn regions, there are also socio-economic benefits to continuing and expanding a policy of domestic resettlement of refugees. Because of these moral and economic imperatives, the United States should aim to increase its intake of Syrian refugees from 10,000 per year to 20,000 per year, as this increase would allow us to help improve the lives of many Syrians and would not overly burden American society.
But why is it the moral imperative of the United States to deal with the catastrophes of the Middle East? Why should we be obligated to take care of citizens who are not our own? To answer this question, we should address how the United States and other western nations pursued policies and actions that would sow the seeds of instability that are bearing fruit in the Syrian refugee crisis.
The American decision after the beginning of the Iraq War to disband the Iraqi army led to large numbers of disenfranchised and trained young military men being sent into an environment of economic hardship and a lack of opportunity, a prime situation for extremist recruiters. Also, the American-backed Saudi regime is ostensibly responsible for the exportation of Wahhabist doctrine, which has helped provide an ideological underpinning for the terror campaigns of both al Qaeda and ISIL, our most visible enemies in the region and one of the causes of the current crisis. Further, both the double-tap tactics of the drone strike program and its occasional accidental cases of targeting civilians has resulted in sobering images of bombed villages and wedding parties, undermining America’s moral credibility in their struggle against ISIL and al Qaeda. These missteps and bad policy decisions help explain why Washington has a hand in the current crisis and cannot simply wave away the catastrophe as ‘not our problem.’
Now while it may be true we have a moral responsibility to take in more refugees, this is not to say that the American public is interested, or even willing. Polling from Bloomberg showed a majority in opposition to accepting any more Syrian refugees. Ted Cruz described a refugee shutdown as “basic steps to protect ourselves from the growing threat of radical Islamic terrorism.” This is the most vocal and emotive argument against accepting more Middle Eastern refugees; a fear that they are radicals who may slip into the country and wreak havoc, Islamist wolves in sheep’s clothing.
These fears are both pervasive and powerful; more importantly, however, they are utterly divorced from reality. Refugees resettled in the United States are a much less dangerous group than almost any other demographic due to the strictures of the vetting process they must undergo. Before the United States even becomes involved in the process, an individual must abandon their home and come to a refugee camp that is run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Then, some refugees will be recommended for resettlement. If the individual is chosen to apply for resettlement to the United States, their application is judged by the Department of Homeland Security and may or may not be accepted. In the case it is accepted, the individual is then checked by the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and sometimes the Department of Defense. After this process, which can last up to two years, the individual may be granted asylum in the United States and settled in a specified community. This kind of intense scrutiny does not lend itself to letting terrorists slip in; the testament to this fact is that not a single refugee allowed in the United States has ever committed a terrorist act and only three have been arrested on terrorism charges.
Beyond the fact that the risk of accepting refugees is low, there are also economic benefits to doing so. One critique of accepting refugees is that they take away jobs from working Americans, this simply is not true. For example, the Mariel boatlift of Cuban refugees to the United States increased the working population of Miami by a whopping 7%, but caused no downward pressure on wages and no upward pressure on unemployment. Beyond simply doing no harm, refugees could also help to mitigate the consequences of population drains from rusting economic centers like Detroit and expand the tax base, curbing the economic freefall of the rustbelt. Cities like Dearborn, Michigan have substantial migrant populations that have helped to keep local economies stable following the crash of the economy in 2008. In Utica, New York, a growing refugee population helped stem losses from a failing economy. The Brookings Institution has also concluded that refugees are ultimately a net benefit to their host country economies. All of these voices offer good reasons to increase the amount of Syrian refugees we accept to 20,000, as an extra 10,000 people (a mere 0.003% population increase) will in no way constitute a severe enough change to shock any sector of the American economy.
In short, the United States of America has a moral obligation to take in more refugees. With the stain of abandonment from the time of the Holocaust on the tapestry of American life, we cannot turn our back on Syrian and Iraqi refugees now. We helped to sow the seeds of chaos bearing their dark, putrid fruit today and must not abdicate our moral duty to right our wrongs. To do so would be not only immoral, but foolhardy, economically unhelpful, and an unconscionable abandonment of the American ideal that ours is a land for the huddled masses who yearn to breathe free.