In Defense of Refugees

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, November 17, 2015, 5:42 PM

The unseemly spectacle of governors and presidential candidates—leaders and would-be leaders of states and the nation at large—tripping over one another to confuse the victims of ISIS with ISIS itself and to confuse ISIS as well with the victims of Bashar Assad induces moral anguish in my war-on-terror heart.

As readers of this site know, I do not hang out, intellectually or emotionally, in the human rights clubhouse. I defend non-criminal detention. I believe actively in robust surveillance authorities. I have no moral or legal qualms about military commissions. I don't mind drone strikes. I'll even—still—cop to harboring mixed feelings about coercive interrogations in the highest-stakes cases. #SorryNotSorry.

But turning our backs on refugees? Count me the heck out.

There is a critical moral line here; there is also an important strategic line. I have nothing to add on the law to Steve Vladeck's excellent piece this morning on the federalism issues associated with refugee resettlement. Allow me, however, a brief meditation on the morality and strategic stupidity of the hostility many of our leading politicians are showing to ISIS's and Assad's victims.

Let's start with the moral point: Unlike the many tough and controversial tactics the Bush and Obama administrations have used in combatting terrorism, what's going on now involves action directed at concededly innocent people. Even the CIA's interrogation program waterboarded people believed to be Al Qaeda's senior operational leadership. The tens of thousands of people governors are pledging to keep out of their states are, by contrast, innocent victims of the very people we are fighting. Nobody contests this. Nobody argues that they are, in fact, an army of ISIS operatives. The concern, rather, is that some tiny percentage of them will be sleeper operatives infiltrated into a much larger group of people deserving of our protection.

I would make an analogy here to throwing out babies with bathwater, except that it would be in poor taste. We're dealing with real babies, after all.

Let's concede the point that our rigorous and slow screening system will fail in some small percentage of cases and that we will admit some number of people who turn out to be bad. If that is enough to stop all Syrian refugees from finding shelter here, why do we grant visas—and we grant many of them—to people from that part of the world at all? Why do we let students come here from the Persian Gulf? Why do we let tourists come here from just about anywhere? And, more to the point, why have we let refugees come here from all sorts of nasty places in the world? Each refugee community brings with it a certain number of bad apples. But I wouldn't give back the Mariel boatlift, though it involved a fair number of Cuban criminals. The United States also sheltered a large number of Iranians after the Revolution in 1979. We are, by a few country miles, the world's leader in refugee resettlement. To suddenly say that the risk of ISIS infiltrating this particular refugee flow makes it categorically different from all others is really a backhanded way of saying that we should make a different set of security presumptions about Arabs, even those we know to be victims of the worst forms of oppression by our own military enemies.

The sentiment is not just ugly. It may also be profoundly self-defeating in security terms. Yes, if we admit tens of thousands of refugees, we will likely admit some who will give the FBI headaches. We will also create a community that values American liberty and religious freedom, that engages constructively with our economy and with our law enforcement and that sees this country as part of the solution to—or at least a haven fromthe tragedy that is Syria.

It is worth reflecting at least briefly on the security risks of turning our backs on hundreds of thousands of helpless people fleeing some combination of ISIS and Assad. Imagine teeming refugee camps in which everyone knows that America has abandoned them. Imagine the conspiracy theories that will be rife in those camps. Imagine the terrorist groups that will recruit from them and the righteous case they will make about how, for all its talk, the United States left Syria to burn and Syrians to live in squalor in wretched camps in neighboring countries. I don't know if this situation is more dangerous, less dangerous, or about as dangerous as the situation in which we admit a goodly number of refugees, help resettle others, and run some risk—which we endeavor to mitigate—that we might admit some bad guys. But this is not a situation in which all of the risk is stacked on the side of doing good, while turning away is the safe option. There is risk whatever we do or don't do.

Most profoundly, there is risk associated with saying loudly and unapologetically that we don't care what happens to hundreds of thousands of innocent people—or that we care if they're Christian but not if they're Muslim, or that we care but we'll keep them out anyway if there's even a fraction of a percent chance they are not what they claim to be. They hear us when we say these things. And they will see what we do. And those things too have security consequences.