Does the U.S. Benefit from Accepting Syrian Refugees?

The U.S. has resettled roughly 3 million refugees since 1980, when the Refugee Act was passed.[i] Annual figures fluctuate according to global events and executive priorities, the latter being an extremely important factor. President Obama admitted 84,995 refugees in FY2016, while President H.W. Bush resettled over 100,000 refugees during each year of his term.[ii] Currently, Syrian refugees are in the spotlight with public opinion split between sympathy and criticism.[iii] But does the United States actually benefit from accepting these Syrian refugees, and if so, how?[iv]

This is a legitimate issue that must be addressed by each incoming President as long as the humanitarian crisis in Syria persists. The Chief Executive carries broad authority and heavy responsibility in this field. The President needs to be certain that when an entire group is identified for preferential treatment in refugee admissions, that group either benefits the U.S. or advances our interests in some fashion. This is not a question of right or wrong, fair or unfair, deserving or unworthy. Those are not relevant factors to the question that the sitting President is likely to consider. Furthermore, the question posited does not even mention the costs of resettling Syrian refugees, or the chances that a terrorist might slip through. The question asks for a single concrete benefit to the United States.

Economically, refugees are either an insignificant net gain or a small drain, depending on which economic study one chooses to use. One can point to several studies by organizations seeking to resettle refugees that describe positive gains in employment, wages, and the overall economy,[v] whereas groups opposing refugee programs present studies reflecting negative impacts in the same areas.[vi] Due to conflicting studies, determining the economic benefit is very difficult. So is there another benefit to the U.S. besides an economic one?

In a word: “Yes.” The President can use the admittance of Syrian refugees as a weapon in the fight against terrorism and to more broadly advance our interests and image in the Middle East. Selective admission of refugees is a tried and true measure allowing a President’s foreign policy to react to global catastrophes and humanitarian crises instead of being hamstrung by a restrictive statute. Those whose sympathies and concerns lie with the refugees themselves lament this executive discretion, but a Chief Executive’s primary concern is not on refugees – it lies with the United States, its citizens, and its interests.

Two years after the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed, renowned immigration expert Ira Kurzban published a law review article examining how the United States, particularly the executive branch, was using refugee admissions as a weapon in the broader Cold War.[vii] This allowed “the wholesale infusion of political biases into a purportedly neutral policy.”[viii] Kurzban’s complaint was simple and valid: without stricter statutory controls refugees will not be admitted based on their persecution, but based on how they benefit the United States. He noted the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 aligned with U.S. foreign policy objectives: “Admitting Eastern European refugees into the United States achieved the twin aims of relieving our Western European allies’ economic burdens, and publicizing the discontent among the citizens of communist countries.”[ix] What Kurzban lamented in 1982 was the fact that America continued to turn a blind eye to the suffering in Africa, Haiti, El Salvador, Chile, and other places because they didn’t advance Cold War objectives.[x] He makes a strong argument for right v. wrong,[xi] but in doing so he supports my contention that the U.S. foreign policy can directly benefit from selective refugee admissions.

The course of events during the 1980’s would lend great weight to the argument that America benefited from selective admissions.[xii] The Soviet Union collapsed; the Iron Curtain is gone. The U.S. fought a non-traditional war for world hegemony[xiii] and the resettlement of Asian and European refugees fleeing communistic regimes was a part of that broader effort. By publicizing their discontent, refugee admittance was a positive element within a greater foreign policy, branding, and culture war against the U.S.S.R.[xiv] A series of successive Presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan, made tough and unpopular choices regarding refugees that ultimately benefited the country from a national security standpoint.[xv]

The Cold War is over and a new threat has emerged – Islamic terrorism. This enemy is radical, elusive, borderless, and excessively and indiscriminately violent. Our enemy has no uniform and no identifiable characteristics, but this is not necessarily new. After his first tour in Vietnam, former Secretary of State Colin Powell reflected, “How did we fight foes who blended in with local peasants who were frightened or too sympathetic to betray them?”[xvi] In 2017 we face a similar battle: “…terrorism is a problem of a small number of enemies embedded in a population of people you need to win over.”[xvii] This is a battle of ideologies in a delicate environment that will need a variety of approaches if the United States is to emerge victorious.[xviii] The methods and tactics must readily adapt to constantly changing circumstances. The military option will be employed, but bombs and bullets alone cannot win this war. Using a multi-front approach to combating terrorism, Syrian refugee admissions can be to America’s benefit in the “War on Terror” in four distinct ways.

First, when we accept refugees we prevent the radicalization of some simply by pulling them out of a dangerous environment. That is a direct benefit to U.S. military and national security interests. In 2015, then-President Obama stated, “When people – especially young people – feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path for advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption – that feeds instability and disorder, and makes those communications ripe for extremist recruitment.”[xix] Groups like ISIS take advantage of this concentrated despair in refugee camps to recruit children and teens.[xx] If we can prevent the future radicalization of just one person by relocating them to the United States, that’s one less person we will need to fight in ten years, which is a significant benefit to the U.S..[xxi] We will never be able to prevent the radicalization of every future terrorist currently in a Syrian refugee camp, but we can significantly reduce the chances of that radicalization taking root by extracting vulnerable children from a dangerous environment.

Second, when we accept refugees we get to craft our own message to our target population that is contrary to ISIS and other radical groups. President Reagan kept the door open to Soviet Union refugees, and kept the annual quota high, to demonstrate that the U.S. was open to those capable of escaping.[xxii] When President Johnson signed the 1965 immigration act he stated that the United States would accept all those who desired to leave Fidel Castro’s communist state.[xxiii] American policymakers believed that accepting refugees would demonstrate the failure of communism in Cuba and also be a humanitarian gesture.[xxiv] Reagan and Johnson both cultivated the capitalist American image in the eyes of those suffering under communism[xxv] and this administration can reap even greater benefits today with Syrian refugees. The power of messaging cannot be underestimated.[xxvi] Not accepting refugees definitely sends the wrong messages to our allies in the fight.[xxvii]

Third, the refugees relocated to the United States are our best ambassadors, meaning they are able to communicate the realities Western life from a position of authority (via first-hand experience). If they are content with their new surroundings, they will communicate that information to their contacts back home. They can provide a positive eyewitness account of America that has the potential to refute the misinformation purposefully disseminated by ISIS and other radical groups. Instead of demonstrating our good intentions by funneling taxpayer dollars into a kleptocracy or totalitarian regime, Syrian refugees can serve as our goodwill ambassadors, bridging a gap between the government of the United States and the citizens of Syria. This is an infinitely greater benefit than country development, which has been a costly investment for the U.S. A study on USAID programs aimed at preventing violent extremism in Mali called the development-based approach promising idea, but not straightforward or noticeably effective.[xxviii] On the other hand, if the economic benefit of accepting Syrian refugees is a wash, then the U.S. gets these ambassadors for free.

Finally, when the United States accepts refugees we demonstrate to our American Muslim community that we sincerely believe in freedom of religion. This is a critically important benefit to the U.S. because, most often, intelligence tips that thwart Islamic terrorist activities come from within the Muslim community.[xxix] Their continued – and absolutely necessary – cooperation in the fight against terrorism depends on their conviction that America is a tolerant place to live and prosper. This conviction is necessarily predicated upon how Muslim immigrants, and Syrian refugees in particular, are actually treated within the host country, and how they perceive themselves being treated. Germany has had some success in cultivating an inviting atmosphere,[xxx] whereas France and Belgium have not. As Pope Francis stated, “[r]emember that authentic hospitality is a profound Gospel value that nurtures love and is our greatest security against hateful acts of terrorism.”[xxxi]

I have provided four separate benefits for the United States attached to admitting refugees, each in the realm of foreign policy, defense, and national security. However, that does not mean the refugee program is above suspicion or reproach. This is not the era of communism and we are not handling economic migrants. When we admit refugees from Syria (and the greater Islamic world) we are taking a risk. The risk may be mitigated to the greatest possible extent through intense selection, screening, and vetting, but some risk is simply inherent.[xxxii] However, with a proper admission and resettlement process, the U.S. could directly benefit from welcoming, admittedly, a very small number of the over 4 million Syrian refugees.[xxxiii] In doing so, we gain another weapon to use against radical extremism headquartered in the Middle East. Establishing the benefits of accepting refugees not the only factor necessitating consideration, but it is an important question within the broader debate of whether or not America should accept more Syrian refugees.

[i] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/30/key-facts-about-refugees-to-the-u-s/

[ii] Id.

[iii] The crisis has its own Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refugees_of_the_Syrian_Civil_War

[iv] Tucker Carlson loves to pose this question to his politically left-leaning guests; though very few have been able to answer it competently or convincingly. They tend to fall back on the right v. wrong argument (it feels good!) instead of identifying a benefit.

[v] http://www.newamericaneconomy.org/research/from-struggle-to-resilience-the-economic-impact-of-refugees-in-america/

[vi] http://www.npg.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Impact-of-Refugees2016rev.pdf

[vii] Ira J. Kurzban, A Critical Analysis of Refugee Law, 36 U. of Miami L. Rev. 865 (1982).

[viii] Id., at 867.

[ix] Id., at 868.

[x] This sentiment is echoed in The Implementation of the Refugee Act of 1980: A Decade of Experience, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, pages 10, 12 (March 1990).

[xi] The right way being a stricter statute passed by Congress that actually treated all refugees identically and the wrong way being executive discretion that treats refugees as pawns in a larger political struggle.

[xii] This does not undermine Kurzban’s argument of right v. wrong. Remember, I am attempting to answer the question, “how does the U.S. benefit from admitting (Syrian) refugees?” not “is admitting (Syrian) refugees the right thing to do?” Those are two separate questions.

[xiii] See, for example, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10441108/How-pop-culture-helped-win-the-Cold-War.html and http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html

[xiv] Belmonte, Laura A., Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

[xv] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/30/key-facts-about-refugees-to-the-u-s/

[xvi] Mann, James, Rise of the Vulcans, Penguin Books (2004).

[xvii] Quoting Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/28/us/politics/trump-immigration-ban-muslims-military.html?mcubz=0

[xviii] For example, Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a firm believer in using education as a weapon in the fight against terrorism: “Ideologies can be countered by giving people a better education and hope for the future.” http://mihsislander.org/2017/06/education-the-key-to-reducing-the-lure-of-terror-says-mattis/; see also http://www.pointsoflight.org/blog/army-veteran-fights-terrorism-funding-education-refugee-children.When fighting an unconventional war the use of unconventional tactics is extremely wise.

[xix] http://www.latimes.com/world/global-development/la-fg-development-aid-terrorism-20170305-story.html

[xx] http://nypost.com/2017/02/06/isis-tries-to-recruit-child-refugees-by-offering-them-food-cash/

[xxi] As of this writing, there have been no instances of terrorist acts committed by a Syrian refugee. The FBI investigations into Somali refugees in Minnesota show that all refugee communities are different. More importantly, it demonstrates that reviewing the refugee program with an eye towards national security is prudent.

[xxii] http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/23/opinions/cold-war-immigration-bier/index.html

[xxiii] http://www.lbjlibrary.org/lyndon-baines-johnson/timeline/lbj-on-immigration

[xxiv] http://www.americanforeignrelations.com/O-W/Refugee-Policies-Refugees-and-the-cold-war.html#ixzz4uBkMrvA4

[xxv] I believe that, when comparing different refugee groups, Syrians have more in common with refugees fleeing the Soviet bloc because the United States was not involved militarily. The stereotypical Vietnamese, Afghani, and Iraqi refugees share a common bond of displacement via U.S. military invasion. However, anti-communist refugees were fleeing an oppressive form of government absent U.S. involvement, and one could argue that Syrian refugee are fleeing to oppressive forms of government: Assad and ISIS. I acknowledge that it is not a perfect comparison, but I do believe it makes the most sense.

[xxvi] Our world image matters little in this argument. Accepting Syrian refugees can be a targeted messaging campaign to Syrians and others in the immediate vicinity in the broad War on Terror.

[xxvii] http://www.12news.com/news/local/arizona/mccain-fears-refugee-ban-will-be-self-inflicted-wound-in-fight-against-terrorism/394279183

[xxviii] http://www.latimes.com/world/global-development/la-fg-development-aid-terrorism-20170305-story.html

[xxix] http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/06/16/report-us-officials-say-muslims-frequently-report-terror-threats.html

[xxx] http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/16/opinions/germany-open-door-policy-verkaik/index.html

[xxxi] https://www.archbalt.org/best-way-to-fight-terrorism-is-to-warmly-welcome-refugees-pope-says/

[xxxii] Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks on Revised Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry

Washington, DC, Monday, March 6, 2017: “In fact, today more than 300 people who came here as refugees are under FBI investigation for potential terrorism-related activities.”

[xxxiii] An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy, American Immigration Council, November 2015.