Stop the Political Grandstanding on Refugees

Lately, a heated debate has broken out over the question of admitting Syrian refugees. On the Republican side, Donald Trump’s previously hyperbolic suggestions of an ISIS "Trojan Horse" have essentially become mainstreamed. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side of the aisle, President Obama has criticized the Republicans for demonizing Muslims and has argued that accepting Syrian refugees is required based on our American values. Many media outlets were also quick to highlight the very thorough vetting process refugees go through. Thus, the net narratives that have emerged on each side look something like this (and as will be clear from the rest of this post, I am definitely not endorsing either of these views, but merely attempting to summarize them):

Republicans: Obama’s commitment to admit new refugees is opening the US to new terrorist threats and is completely irresponsible. We’re totally fine with profiling Muslims because they’re the only ones that commit terrorism these days, and we should be honest about that. The First Amendment can go jump in a lake; we need security before we can consider rights.

Democrats: The Republicans are just being racist fear-mongers. There’s no credible terrorist threat from the refugee population because of our vetting process; the refugees have been victims of terrorism themselves. We have a responsibility to help those in need, and "we don’t have religious tests to our compassion," in the words of Obama.

And while the Democratic position appears to have more traction in the media, a recent opinion poll shows that a majority of Americans (56%) appear to be leaning towards the Republican line.

Popular opinion aside, I would like to suggest that the core arguments put forth by both camps miss the point. There are grains of truth in each, but most of this debate amounts to just so much political grandstanding. The Democrats don’t give a damn about the Syrian people; the Republicans aren’t really afraid of them; and both of them need to be called out as such.

Let us begin with the Republicans. In fairness, we should start by pointing out that it’s not completely absurd to suggest that ISIS would like to infiltrate the refugee population for the purpose of committing attacks. Last week, we noted that the strategic purpose of ISIS attacks against Western targets is to provoke a harsh reaction by the people and governments of Western nations. If they can provoke extreme oppression against Muslims, then their narrative of a war against Islam gains credibility and they may be able to recruit more members to their cause. In other words, they need the West to behave like monsters. Few things would be more beneficial to this cause than inspiring a Western crackdown on Muslim refugees, a crackdown on the most vulnerable people in the world. And you don’t just have to take my word for this. One of the ISIS attackers in Paris was found with a Syrian passport that appears to have been fabricated or stolen. But all of the attackers were European citizens that would have no need for such a passport – it would obviously be easier for them to travel using their legitimate European nationality than faking refugee status. And accordingly, we must conclude that the Syrian passport served one purpose – to implicate refugees in the attacks and provoke a reaction against them.

The reality noted above could be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, we know ISIS would love to inspire the "refugees are terrorists" narrative. On the other, we realize that in France, they ultimately did not get into the country as refugees. Thus, one might conclude they feared the refugee vetting process would thwart their plans and won’t try to take the risk accordingly. But a more modest conclusion might just be that since the attackers really were European citizens, there was no reason to feign refugee status. Whatever the calculation may be, we still know that ISIS wants the West to fear refugees. It is therefore sad and ironic that the same Republicans who claim to know how to defeat ISIS are also the most eager to fulfill the ISIS strategy to a T.

And it’s worth noting all the ways that (mostly) Republicans are currently toiling to make the ISIS narrative a reality. At least two Republican presidential candidates, Cruz and Bush, are openly suggesting a religious test for the Syrian refugees – if they’re Christian, we’ll take them. If they’re Muslim – eh, maybe not so much. Donald Trump has said he would "strongly consider" shutting down some mosques amongst other absurdities (he’s moved on to discriminate against Muslims in general rather than just the refugees). Several Republican governors have vowed to challenge the refugee resettlement program. And this past week, the House passed a bill that would effectively stop the admission of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Any one of these developments would be remarkable and appalling by itself. The accumulation of them is incredible in the extreme. While all of these proposals play on the fears of the American people, the ideas floated by the Presidential candidates strike me as the most dangerous of all. From Bush to Trump, these ideas directly and openly contradict the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. The fact that these ideas are resonating with a segment of the American population is a truly alarming development. Desiring strong border security and a strict immigration policy is one thing; overt disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law itself is quite another. And for this reason, Obama is certainly right to denounce the Republicans for acting contrary to American values. Indeed, one struggles to find strong enough language for the task.

But then we must turn our attention to the Democrats and precisely what American values we are discussing here. At least on the surface, the argument presented by President Obama and his defenders is a persuasive one. But if the Obama Administration has taught us anything, it is that one must always look beneath the rhetoric.

At a recent press conference after the G20 Summit in Turkey, Obama called on more nations to contribute resources to the refugee crisis, noting that the US has donated the most thus far at $4.5 billion. Obama also said that we must accept more refugees, but ensure our own security in the process. Obama’s present plan calls for accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees by next year, and Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced the US would be increasing acceptance of all refugees (from Syria and elsewhere) to 85,000 per year by 2016, rising to 100,000 per year by 2017. This compares with just 70,000 per year right now.

The trouble is that, given the vast scope of the crisis sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, this effort all but meaningless. To see this, let’s run down the numbers. And to keep it conservative, we’ll restrict our focus to those countries in which the US and its allies have militarily intervened in one way or another:


Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website, All except two of the figures come from detailed country pages and were stated as of December 2014, the most recent date for which comprehensive data were available. As Syrian and Yemeni refugee-only figures are updated more frequently, those figures are current as of mid-November 2015.

So in the table above, IDP refers to internally displaced persons. These are essentially people who were forced to flee their homes, but until they actually leave the country, they’re not technically refugees. In terms of desperation though, there isn’t much difference. Meanwhile, the refugees column includes a small number of asylum-seekers, which are defined slightly differently. But again, when we’re talking about suffering and risk, it’s kind of a distinction without a difference. All of these individuals in the table above were identified by UNHCR as part of the "population of concern".

So what this table tells us is that nearly 25 million people have been displaced in countries that have been destabilized, at least in part, by US intervention over the past decade and a half. And while it is true that some European countries are working to permanently resettle them, the vast majority of these people, whether IDPs or refugees, remain in deeply desperate conditions.

If the US does manage to accept the planned figure of 85,000 next year, it’s clear that this amounts to little more than a rounding error in the face of the current need. As a percentage of total refugees, it comes to 1%. As a percentage of the total population at risk, in the countries we’ve directly affected, it literally rounds to 0%.

But if that was not depressing enough, let us now dive in to the much-discussed vetting process advocated by the President. According to a summary offered by The Wall Street Journal, the total vetting process is estimated to take between 18 months to 24 months for each applicant. Mostly, I’ve seen this presented as a virtue of the program. If it takes that long, it must be thorough. And it also would likely serve as a deterrent to an ISIS infiltration in the refugee stream precisely because of the time lag. These are both reasonable conclusions to draw, and it does make the notion of a legitimate refugee terror plot seem even less probable.

The problem is that the purpose of the program is not just to vet people; it’s to help people who are in immediate need. And while this vetting process is taking place, the refugees remain stuck in whatever terrible living conditions they’re already enduring. That is, they don’t come to the US until the process is completed. All of this means that in the very best case scenario, Obama’s policies won’t help any of the Syrian refugees for a year and a half. Thus, based on the professed Republican fears, they should still love this program. Chances are, we may not have to admit anyone because by the time they get approved, they will already be dead from starvation.

And herein lies the truly appalling reality of the refugee debate. President Obama is arguing for a policy that does almost nothing for refugees, and not until a year and a half from now. Meanwhile, the Republicans are advocating doing literally nothing for refugees, and using blatant fear-mongering to do so. Ultimately, this debate isn’t about helping the Syrians, and it isn’t about protecting the Americans. It’s just about electoral politics – the only American value that matters.

If the politicians really wanted to address the refugee crisis, they could start by stopping the intervention. But somehow, that option isn’t up for debate.

Eric Schuler is the author of The Daily Face Palm blog, which focuses mostly on foreign policy and bad economics.