The Syrian Refugee Program Has the Hallmarks of the Obama Style

President Obama’s directive that the U.S. admit 10,000 Syrian refugees as a humanitarian measure has many hallmarks of his governing style: it lacks a proper legal basis; it will harm rather than help its purported beneficiaries; it will undermine important American interests; and it is designed to signal virtue rather than accomplish anything.

As to the legal basis of the directive, U.S. immigration law is specific. To enter the U.S. as a refugee, one must have a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” The program is not a free-floating humanitarian enterprise.

This limitation makes sense. The broad dictionary definition of “refugee” is “a person who flees for refuge or safety,” and, according to the State Department’s Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for FY 2016 , there are almost 20 million of these, as of late 2014 (including 5 million Palestinians, who are granted hereditary refugee status regardless of fear of persecution). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 60 million people are included in the various sub-categories of displaced persons, refugees (narrowly defined), Palestinian refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants.

Whatever one thinks of overall U.S. immigration policy, throwing open the doors to the dispossessed to this extent and in preference to all others desirous of coming here is not going to happen, and should not.

The State Department Report makes no effort to establish that the displaced Syrians qualify wholesale as “refugees” in the sense required by immigration law. Individuals could certainly qualify, but in Syria an estimated 10 million people, half the population, have been displaced. The UN makes the initial selection of candidates, and the criterion contained in U.S. immigration law is not on the UN list.

Ignoring the legal U.S. standard for admitting refugees also undermines the moral foundations of the program.

A major rationale for the refugee program is to provide a sanctuary for those endangered because of their activities in support of the classic values of liberty and democracy. The U.S. may not (always) “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” in the words of John Quincy Adams, but, “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.” The possibility of entry into the U.S. is a line of retreat for those willing to take risks for these causes. Very few displaced persons in the Middle East meet this standard.

As second rationale for the refugee program is guilt over the 1930s, when Jews, who faced extermination in Europe, were not admitted into the U.S. The need to help people faced with genocide is indeed a strong claim, but, again, it is hard to see this value operating in the current proposal. The refugees to be aided are primarily Sunni, who are the majority in Syria, and not at all comparable to Jews in the 1930s.

As Prof. Michael McConnell observes, applying this “persecution test” would lead us to favor “Christians who are being singled out for religious persecution….  So also Yazidis, Mandaeans, and a few other smaller groups.” At present, only two percent of the Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. are Christian.

McConnell also says that there are “credible reports” that Christians in the refugee camps are terrorized and driven out, which is why they are not in the pool from which the UN draws the candidates for admission to the U.S.. So it should be noted that, under the immigration statute, no person who participated in “the persecution of any person on the basis of race, religion, nationality…social group or political opinion” is eligible for refugee status. 

The refugee program also embodies the belief that we must help those who help us. After the retreat from Vietnam, we admitted 130,000 refugees under special legislation. The refugee program is now being used to aid those in Iraq and Afghanistan who supported the U.S. and are likely to suffer for it.

The principle of not abandoning allies is a happy combination of national honor and political calculation. Especially given our recent history of going abroad in search of monsters and then disappearing when we lose interest, the incentives for anyone to put much faith in U.S. promises is small. If we want help in the future, we must be able to promise individuals that they will be protected.

Ignoring the moral and political considerations that underlie the refugee program and reorienting it toward humanitarian goals is stupid. As a humanitarian effort, it can be only a drop-in-the-bucket, given the estimates of the total number of displaced persons in the world and in the Middle East. Also, because the refugee program has annual caps, set according to a complex dance between the President and Congress (the FY2016 quota is 85,000), converting it to a bastard humanitarian enterprise will clog the pipeline at the expense of those who actually qualify under the law.

The administration directive is immoral in another way. By misdirecting resources, it will kill more people than its saves.

The situation in the nations closest to Syria -- Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon -- is appalling, as almost 10 million displaced Syrians are maintained in camps, where they will remain indefinitely. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, since the beginning of 2015, 436,000 refugees from the Mid-East -- half of them Syrian -- have registered in Serbia, and, “Since June 2015, the UN Refugee Agency delivered humanitarian aid at the value of US$3.1 million to Serbia. With increasing winterization efforts this amount should increase to US$8.7 million . . .  until the end of the year.”

Resettling a refugee in the U.S. costs about $13,000 annually, which means that 10,000 will cost $130 million.  Imagine how much the greater humanitarian benefit of spending this sum closer to Syria. 

In essence, the presidential directive is a cosmetic gesture, the equivalent of a hashtag (remember “#bring back our girls”?), to signal Progressive virtue and to substitute for effective assistance to the afflicted or action to promote stability in the region and end the displacement.

For all these reasons, the proposal is a bad one even without any concern for terrorist infiltration.

The terrorist threat creates an added problem, because, obviously, those hostile to the U.S. should consider using the program to plant agents in the U.S.; only total incompetents would miss the opportunity.

However, as an article by the Cato Institute notes, the terrorist concerns can be overblown. The refugee process is so slow and cumbersome that it would be a highly inefficient method of infiltration.  Using illegal channels or taking advantage of the conventional immigration programs would be easier. Also, while the migrant flood into Europe has been composed heavily of young men, the UN claims that its selection process gives priority to women and children, “the most vulnerable” refugees.

On the other hand, a poll by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies found that 30 percent of displaced Syrians oppose efforts to degrade ISIL, a number consistent with the views of other Middle East populations. So almost a third of the refugees let it will be ISIS sympathizers, assuming that no one would be foolish enough to disqualify him/herself by admitting this during the vetting process. This would create a substantial logistical base for terrorists to draw on in the U.S., so serious second thoughts are appropriate even if the immediate threat of hard-core ISIS cadre is slight.

Nonetheless, the program is going forward, and will, if anything, be expanded. What will not be done is anything effective to change the conditions that are creating the need, and the failure will lead to still greater need, which will in turn provide even greater impetus for more moral posturing and hash-tag measures.

James V DeLong is the author of Ending ‘Big SIS’ (The Special Interest State) & Renewing the American Republic

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