Are Refugees A Risk? The Murky Debate Over Resettling Syrians In The U.S.
Some will see it as a prudent move, others guilt by association. On Monday, Governor Pat McCrory announced he has asked the federal government to cease resettling Syrian refugees in North Carolina. He was one of at least 23 governors, including Nikki Haley of South Carolina, to do so.
But are refugees really a threat?
For many there are two moments that define how they feel about Syrian refugees. They both deal with death.
The first, a photograph of a Syrian toddler, washed up on a Turkish beach. Jenn Smyers, a director with Church World Service, one of the nine groups officially tasked with resettling refugees in the U.S., including Syrians, says the public response was overwhelming.
"We were literally, all of us, on back-to-back-to-back calls with people who wanted to help." Even then they couldn't keep up with those offers. That was in September. Roughly two and a half months before the terrorist attacks in Paris and a Syrian passport was found near the body of a suicide bomber outside a stadium in Paris.
The Islamic State, based in Syria and Iraq quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris. And the extremist group released an online video saying they would also attack Washington DC.
Not long after, Governor Pat McCrory made this announcement. "Because of the most recent attacks in Paris and because of the very real possibility that one of the terrorists entered France as a recent refugee, I am now requesting that the President and the Federal Government cease sending refugees from Syria to North Carolina."
Twenty-three governors – all but one Republican – have done the same since Sunday. Among them: Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Texas and Indiana.
Before being resettled in any state, all refugees must pass screenings by the UN, the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Gov. McCrory has questions about the veracity of those checks.
"The Federal Government has made statements that they do a thorough security check. I don’t know how that’s done" McCrory said, adding he "would trust the government more if they shared more information" with authorities on the 59 Syrian refugees that now live in North Carolina.
"To date," he said, "we’ve received almost little or no security information about those refugees, on their backgrounds or even possibly their names in certain circumstances."
It’s an argument Jenn Smyers doesn’t buy.
"That’s not accurate. In fact every single refugee resettlement agency works hand in hand with every state refugee coordinator." North Carolina has at least five refugee coordinators working at the Department of Heath and Human Services.
This year, Smyers and Church World Service have resettled 25 Syrians in North Carolina. And, she says, each time they’ve passed on all information to state officials. She adds, "Refugees are the most scrutinized and vetted individuals to travel to the United States."
Becoming a refugee in the United States, Smyers says, is much more difficult than getting a tourist visa.
"Every refugee goes through multiple, multi-layer background checks including biometrics, name checks, biographical checks, in person interviews with the Department of Homeland Security, various interagency security checks as well as forensic testing of documents."
And unlike Europe, America hasn’t been overwhelmed by a daily wave of hundreds, sometimes thousands of would be refugees arriving on our shores in inflatable boats.
As of this year less than 2,000 Syrian refugees have been allowed to enter the United States according to the Government. The White House is calling for at least 10,000 more be relocated to the United States over the next 12 months.
Still, even a number as low as 2,000 can poses problems. With the exception of an in-person interview, all those security checks rely on data being available.
Late last month, FBI Director James Comey told the House Judiciary Committee that when it comes to a state like Syria, that data isn't always available.
"The only thing we can query is information that we have," he told the committee, "so if we have no information on someone, they’ve never crossed our radar screen, never been a ripple in the pond, there will be no record on them there and so it will be challenging."
Of the 7 attackers identified by authorities in Paris, just one was reportedly on a terrorist watch list. He was one of four French nationals believed to have taken part in the attack.
One attacker may have entered France posing as a Syrian refugee. And that has yet to be confirmed.
Jenn Smyers believes this guilt by association for all other refugees is not just inaccurate, it’s inhumane. "That’s actually blaming Syrian refugees who are actually themselves are victims of Isis. It’s blaming them for the actions of their perpetrators."
On this point, McCrory agrees. Saying it’s important for the state to continue "showing empathy to the people that are being also harmed by those same people that are becoming terrorists."
But it’s empathy tempered with what McCrory sees as his primary responsibility "protecting the people of this state."
Which is why, McCrory says, he requested the federal government cease sending Syrian refugees to North Carolina. And request is the appropriate word.
The federal government runs the refugee programs, and states don’t have the ability to close their borders. McCrory acknowledged this, but added "I expect the chief executive of our country to listen to the chief executives of our 50 states."
Speaking in Turkey on Monday, President Obama made clear where he stands.
"Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values. Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both."
Whether or not Americans welcome that effort may depend on which of those two Syrian refugee moments they find most powerful: The toddler on the Turkish beach or the sound of gunfire in Paris.