The refugee crisis arising from the often savage conflicts raging in the Middle East and North Africa poses one of the great moral dilemmas of our time. On the one hand, we have an affirmative obligation to offer protection to people who are in imminent peril. On the other, we have an affirmative obligation to protect the security of the American people.
To be sure, the vast majority of people fleeing Syria and other war-ravaged countries pose no immediate threat to national security (although, as we have seen, some become susceptible to radicalization through Saudi-financed mosques after arriving here). But as officials within the Obama administration testified, including National Intelligence Director James Clapper, we do not presently have the capacity to identify and screen out security threats. We have seen the tragic consequences of these intelligence gaps in Europe, where ISIS operatives posing as refugees helped carry out the deadly attacks in Paris in November 2015.
President Donald Trump’s temporary cessation of refugee admissions is not without recent precedent. In 2002, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) co-authored the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act that, among other things, stated that “IN GENERAL – No nonimmigrant visa under section 101(a)(15) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C.1101(a)(15)) shall be issued to any alien from a country that is a state sponsor of international terrorism unless the Secretary of State determines, in consultation with the Attorney General and the heads of other appropriate United States agencies, that such alien does not pose a threat to the safety or national security of the United States.” The bill was passed by a 97-0 margin in the Senate and 411-0 in the House.
In 2011, President Barack Obama suspended the admission of refugees from Iraq for six months in response to evidence that terrorists had entered the United States under the guise of being refugees. The Obama administration also launched a re-examination of the records of some 58,000 Iraqi refugees already settled in the U.S. Going farther back, President Jimmy Carter banned the admission of Iranian nationals after our embassy was seized in 1979.
President Trump’s order will delay, not prevent, some legitimate refugees from being resettled in the United States. Those slated for resettlement, who are deemed not to be security risks, will continue to receive protection under the auspices of the United Nations and other international organizations in the interim. The delay is regrettable; the cost of leaving gaps for ISIS or other terrorist groups to exploit could be catastrophic.
Reasonable people might disagree with President Trump’s decisions to temporarily halt refugee admissions. But some are making unreasonable and facile comparisons between the president’s executive order and this country’s denial of admission to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi onslaught in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Jews seeking to get out of Europe during that era posed no security risks to the United States or any of the other countries to which they were seeking admission. There was no Jewish ISIS or al-Qaida, working with or without state sponsorship. There is no equivalent Jewish concept of jihad. None of the Jews who were in peril in Europe was on the losing side of sectarian power struggles. They were simply innocent targets of a hateful, genocidal ideology.
Most of the people fleeing places such as Syria want nothing more than to live their lives free from the terror and tyranny of brutal dictators like Bashar Assad, or the unspeakable savagery of groups like ISIS. But some have other motives in mind. Some, probably a small number, are seeking to take advantage of the situation to infiltrate the United States and wage their ideological battle against us on our soil, and we must take reasonable precautions to prevent that from happening. As we have learned from bitter experience, a small number people can cause a lot of damage.
Ironically, despite all of the heated rhetoric, there is unanimity of agreement about what we are trying to achieve. We must protect people who are in imminent danger without endangering the security of the American people. The debate is about how to balance these moral imperatives.
Dan Stein is President of FAIR.