Leadership should guide American response to refugee crisis

Robert W. Glover, University of Maine

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on December 8, 2015.

Over the past several months, Americans have watched Europe face refugee flows unprecedented in recorded history. Last month in Paris, horrifying attacks by individuals linked with the terrorist network ISIS heightened anxieties about security. Last week’s grisly husband-and-wife coordinated assault in San Bernardino has only amplified American fears.

As we in the United States contemplate strategies to respond to the refugee crisis, we must be realistic about the dangers we face and let moral and political leadership, rather than fear, guide our actions.

It is this climate of fear that led 31 of the nation’s governors, including Maine Gov. Paul LePage, to state their opposition to having Syrian refugees settle within their borders (though it’s worth noting that this decision is ultimately in the hands of the federal government).

It now seems clear that those involved in the Paris attacks were by and large European nationals, often second- and third-generation. This makes sense. ISIS has been successful at recruiting fighters from abroad, and it is far easier to move around the world with a European passport than as a refugee.

The attacks last week in San Bernardino tell a similar story. Accounts thus far seem to suggest that attackers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were “self-radicalized” admirers of ISIS operating independently. Farook was an American citizen, born in Illinois. Though his wife was Pakistani, she was here legally on a K-1 “fiancee” visa.” Restrictive measures against refugees would not have actually stopped either attack. This is to say nothing of the appalling massacre at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, which suggests we have plenty to fear from domestic terrorism.

We also should recognize that such fear is not unique to this moment. Looking at public opinion throughout history, we see that Americans have tended to be restrictive in admitting refugees escaping past crises. Had we let fear dictate refugee and immigration policy in our past, numerous ethnic groups that now make up the fabric of this nation never would been allowed to come to the U.S. In fact, some of us might not be here now.

In the face of such stunning violence at home and abroad and widespread public fears about refugees, what steps should the U.S. take? Simply put, a lot more. At present, the U.S. has pledged to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year — an anemic and embarrassing number when compared to some of our international partners.

For instance, Sweden has been receiving refugees at a rate of 10,000 per week in a country of just under 10 million people. Though they have recently tightened their admittance policy, they will probably end up with about 200,000 refugees. Closer to home, Canada, a country with only 35 million people, has pledged to accept at least 35,000 refugees. The United States can and should do more on this front.

Settled refugees may not return home. They will, as they have in the past, grow to be a part of our communities. This will not be easy — such individuals are likely to need support transitioning to a new society and recovering from the trauma that caused them to flee their home.

Isolated criminals or violent individuals may be among those we accept, in part because the refugees’ countries have essentially collapsed. This makes background investigations extremely hard. We should remain acutely aware of this challenge while not letting it stymie our humanitarian obligations. Yet, as stated at the outset, if ISIS or a similar group wants to hurt us, there are easier, less scrutinized ways than through refugee flows.

Accepting and supporting these refugees will require courage and a resolute determination to take up the moral and political responsibility that comes with being a world leader in the face of unprecedented suffering. All Americans have a part to play. We can begin by compelling our leaders to operate on the basis of a realistic assessment of threat and a recognition that we must do more.

Robert W. Glover is an assistant professor of political science and honors at the University of Maine. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the Bangor Daily News every other week.



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