Defending Obama’s Syrian Refugee Agenda

The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote in American Foreign Policy with Professor Tizoc Chavez at Vanderbilt University.

There are over four and a half million Syrian refugees that are currently registered with the U.N. There exist humanitarian obligations. The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol establish that refugees have the right to live and work in a country where they are safe. The civil war in Syria has killed over 200,000 people, and decreased the life expectancy by twenty years. Although there is no way that the U.S. alone can solve this problem, that doesn’t mean that we should stop at 10,000. If the U.S. were to admit 100,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, it would help reestablish its place as a leader in human rights. The U.S. would be once again leading by example, and therefore increase its soft power.

If the U.S. were to admit more Syrian refugees, ISIL’s recruitment ability would also be weakened, as its propaganda relies fundamentally on the ideas that the U.S. is intolerant towards Islam and Muslims and that the ISIL caliphate is the safest place in the world for Muslims. What better way to invalidate these claims than to offer a reasonable amount of Syrians admission to the U.S.?

Some, like Ted Cruz, have perpetuated the idea that the vast majority of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. are men who fit the terrorist profile, and this somehow makes it less of a humanitarian effort. However, 67% of refugees that the U.N. refers to the U.S. have been children under 12 years and women.

Many Americans fear that refugees are a detriment to the American economy, that admitting them is a charitable act that costs them a great deal because they require expensive resettlement and enormous amounts of welfare. However, after ten years, refugees receive about the same amount of benefits and reach an income of about 87% of U.S. born Americans. In fact, refugees actually improve the U.S.’s economy in the long run. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “refugee men are employed at a higher rate than their U.S.-born peers,” and women are employed at the same rate. With birth rates in the U.S. declining, Social Security is accelerating into bankruptcy as our population ages. More working age people in America means more people paying taxes to support social programs that benefit older Americans. Bolstering our population with younger immigrants who are willing and able to work is how the U.S. has continued to grow while Japan and some European countries have stagnated with their low birth rates. More working people in the U.S. also does not “take jobs” from “more deserving” Americans. The number of jobs are generally increased by immigrants, and this similarly will hold for refugees because they will be consuming goods and services, starting small business, and increasing demand for labor in America. The troubles that European countries face with massive influxes of refugees are largely social, not economic. From 1975 to 1995, the U.S. admitted nearly 500,000 Vietnamese refugees. Instead of being an economic burden on the U.S., the 1.9 million Vietnamese Americans today have a higher median household income than the average. As the education and skill levels of the two groups are roughly similar, there is no reason to believe Syrian refugees would be radically different from these Vietnamese Americans.

The biggest concern Americans openly raise about admitting Syrian refugees is security. However this concern is mostly founded on misconceptions about Syrians and Muslims in general, specifically that they and immigrants in general are much more prone to committing acts of violence than native born Americans. There is also the misconception that the U.S. currently does not or cannot properly vet refugees, when the vetting process for refugees is actually more intensive than it is for any other type of immigrant. For Syrian refugees the process can take up to three years and involves several federal departments such as Homeland Security and State, as well as national intelligence agencies. The refugee vetting process for the U.S. is so thorough, that out of 784,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. since 9/11, none have been found to be participating in terrorist activities in the U.S. On top of this, Syrian refugees are more extensively checked than refugees from other countries. In fact, our screening process for Syrian refugees is fundamentally much more extensive than that of European countries, which helps explain why the U.S. has not only experienced proportionally fewer issues than Europe due to fewer refugees, but far fewer even than that.

Before the Paris attacks, Americans narrowly approved Obama’s decision to admit more Syrian refugees at 51% to 45%, but immediately after the attacks, before even 2,000 Syrian refugees had moved to the U.S., Americans strongly disapproved 60% to 37%. This disapproval is mostly the result of a fear, inspired by high profile and misrepresentative tragedies, that rationality and resolve must quell.

The civil war in Syria is a tragic, complicated event that requires a multilateral solution, but it has also provided a great opportunity for the U.S. to reassert itself as a humanitarian leader. Canada, which has a population one-tenth as large as the U.S., has already taken over 25,000 refugees without issue. The UK, a populace one-fifth that of the U.S., is planning on taking 20,000 over the next five years. Germany welcomed over 1 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees in 2015. Jordan, with its mere 6.5 million population size has taken over 600,000 Syrian refugees. While it would be difficult for the U.S. to take as many as those countries because of our extensive screening process, we can still do better than we have been considering America’s massive relative size. Once, America turned down 908 Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis in 1939. Forced to return to Europe, about a quarter were killed in the Holocaust. Allowing history to repeat itself and being content with the paltry 10,000 refugees will damage the U.S’s reputation and weaken its position as the moral leader in the world. This will in turn weaken our justification for spreading our values and interests across the world. By aggressively enacting an agenda to safely resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees, the U.S. can simultaneously rebuild its moral reputation while undermining ISIL’s rhetoric. We currently lag behind our allies, but we can still catch up and assume the position once again as the leading country of the free world.


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