The Refugee Crisis and the Straw Man of “Bigotry”

In the aftermath of the attacks on Paris, a Greek passport found near the body of one of the terrorists has led many to infer that he utilized the refugee process in Greece to obtain entrance to Europe. The fingerprints on the passport allegedly matched those of the Stade de France bomber, and Greek authorities have since confirmed that the passport was issued on October 3 on the island of Leros. However, France has not publicly confirmed that the passport holder was one of the suspected terrorists, and the news comes to us in the form of unverified reports citing a leak by an unnamed US senator. Until such details are confirmed, it cannot be said with absolute certainty whether the terrorists managed to access Europe amidst the wave of refugees entering the EU or via the general immigration process. The fact that many already claim absolute certainty demonstrates nothing, save for the fact that individuals have decided which conclusive outcome they prefer to be true based upon which outcome best assists their predetermined political opinion on how to manage the Syrian refugee crisis.

This issue, as important as it is, is but a single note in a symphony of problems with which the United States and its European allies are now faced. It will demonstrate what has happened in the case of that individual, not all of them. And yet both sides, or at least the more irrational elements of both sides, would prefer to make the hasty generalization that because this passport was or was not used to perpetrate acts of war against our European allies, then all such passports issued through the refugee process either do or do not go to terrorists.

At least for the left, they have jumped upon the hasty generalization made by some of the more deplorable, nativist factions of collectivists now advocating the total cessation of refugee programs involving Syria. After all, such factions have often called the refugees “invaders” and various other epithets, and they see no distinction between Islamic State terrorists and individuals whose entire lives have been torn asunder by civil war. Indeed, for such factions, there is not a distinction.

Of course, such a position carries no weight. Many of those seeking asylum are Yazidis, Christians, Alawites, Kurds, and Shiites who, under the Sunni Islamic State, would almost certainly face death. Whatever their lives were before the war, those lives are gone now—their homes, their occupations, and often their families. They have nowhere to go, so they simply go, carrying little with them but their own lives and doing all that they can not to lose them.

The argument that the vast majority of refugees are innocents seeking shelter is easy to make, and indeed the leftists make it easily. And they are not wrong to do so. But they also avoid a much more difficult question: what do we do if the Islamic State is using the refugee process to sneak in militant death squads? And, more importantly, what do we do if we cannot readily make the distinction?

Those questions are much more important and more uncomfortable for the left, as they strike at the heart of the left’s own hasty generalization—that all the refugees are the sad souls displaced by the war, and none of the millions now seeking and obtaining refugee status could possibly be terrorists. And so, the left would prefer not to answer such questions.

So in the last few days when six Republican governors have taken steps to ensure that Syrian refugees will not be settled into their states, the left has cried “racism.” They have, rather than address some of the concerns raised by these governors about security and our possible inability to distinguish between terrorists and refugees, avoided the issue and have hoped to recast it in a manner that ties all attempts to terminate refugee programs to the nativist, xenophobic tendencies of some advocates of such policies.

It is plain to see that such recasting presents a straw-man fallacy. It is easy to say that the refugee programs should not be terminated under racist, xenophobic pretenses. Such pretenses are both morally abhorrent and can be immediately falsified by pointing to any one of the millions of refugees who is not an Islamic State operative. But when the arguments for ending the refugee programs are not based on such simplistic premises, the straw-man accomplishes nothing for the left. It does not dispel security concerns. It does not address whether the safeguards that we have in place are adequate to prevent terrorist infiltration. It does not address whether, if our safeguards are lacking, the exigencies of war require such programs to cease, or else place our own citizens at potentially catastrophic risk of organized attack. It is but an empty platitude, and the stakes of war are too great to risk the lives of hundreds of citizens on platitudes.

The question of whether to end the refugee programs for Syria is simply too broad for this short essay. It presents a delicate issue involving both the philosophical questions underlying the matter and of the present factual circumstances (i.e., what safeguards do we currently have in place, are they effective, how do we know, etc.).

Of the philosophical matters, I will provide a brief summary. First, it is the sole function of the government to protect and enforce the rights of its citizens and of those within its jurisdiction. Whatever the other considerations may be, this first principle of free politics cannot be sacrificed.  Corollary to the first is the principle that the government does not exist to protect the rights of those outside of its jurisdiction.

Second, generally, an individual has the right to move across borders, save when that individual presents a threat to the rights those already within the borders of a particular country. Examples include violent felons, enemy combatants, or those carrying a dangerous, contagious disease (though being sick does not violate rights, being negligent while sick does, hence the existence of quarantines). Flowing from the first principle, the government has the responsibility to keep such threats out in order to prevent harm to its citizenry.

And third, to the extent that refugee programs are allowed in accordance with the first and second principles, the charitable side of the operation (i.e., actually organizing travel for these individuals, placing them into communities, finding them jobs, etc.) should be privately managed. The government is not a humanitarian welfare organization—indeed, treating it as such would be a violation of the first principle. Though ultimately who gets into the country is a matter for the government, any assistance rendered should be rendered privately through charity.

Do these principles forbid the continuation of the current refugee system? Portions of it, yes—namely the use of tax dollars to fund what ought to be charitable operations. But that is not really the core issue, as that only deals with who manages the logistics of moving refugees into a country.

The ultimate question of whether the refugees should be permitted to enter is a matter of the responsibility of government to its people and the migratory rights of individuals. One would be deluded to say that a threat does not exist. The Islamic State has made abundantly clear that it is a threat and that it has every intention of killing Americans. The government certainly has the responsibility to prevent members of the Islamic State from entering the United States, while simultaneously destroying the Islamic State abroad.

But what of those who are not a threat? The greatest obstacle to good policy here is a knowledge problem: can we tell them apart? Because if the governments cannot tell innocent refugees from malicious sleeper cells, then, as I wrote recently in “Defeating the Islamic State: Toward a Foreign Policy of Reason,” “they should not gamble with the lives of their citizens in the name of humanitarian altruism.”

To illustrate the point, imagine two individuals attempting to emigrate from a region of the world currently experiencing an epidemic of a highly lethal, highly contagious disease. Should the government let them in, or quarantine them? That would depend upon the answers to a number of empirical questions regarding the incubation period of the disease, whether the migrants are symptomatic, whether they had been in contact with someone with the disease, etc. The answers to some of these questions may be known (e.g., the incubation period and whether they are symptomatic), while the individuals themselves could mislead immigration officials about others (e.g., whether they had recently come into contact with someone with the disease). If we cannot say with certainty, given the circumstances, that they pose no threat, then the only appropriate solution is quarantine until determined otherwise.

Whether the circumstances are such that we can easily distinguish militant threats from innocent refugees is similar in its empirical nature, involving both known and potentially unknown elements (more of the latter than the former, unfortunately). Can a program exist in which we can accept only those whom we are sure are not threats, at the exclusion of the rest? The potential for error and oversight will always exist, but it is an ideal that we could at least approach. Could we draw up a system in which those who are surely not threats are free to enter, while those about which we are uncertain are placed under certain restrictions limiting their mobility until they can be cleared or until the war ends? Possibly. Is it possible that we simply cannot be sure, and so cannot afford to let anyone in? That could also be the case.

Without further knowledge of such questions, I do not pretend to have an answer. But I am certain that, in order to find a solution, these are the questions that we must ask. We must take them seriously and answer them without predetermined political prejudices or partisan blame and vilification. These are important national security concerns that should not be sacrificed to a desire to seem accepting and understanding. Throughout this crisis, however long it may endure, the priority of the United States government should be, above all, to secure the rights and lives of American citizens and, secondly, to admit refugees to the extent that we are able. The answer is not terribly satisfying, but nothing about war is.

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