Fifteen years after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, another powerful symbol of American exceptionalism lies in ruins: the U.S. asylum system. Once an example for the civilized world because of its strong commitment to
help those escaping tyranny and violence, it is now a complete disaster. It has become so consumed with keeping Islamic jihadis out that it won't even let their victims in.
Nowhere is this clearer than America's response to the refugee crisis in Syria, arguably the gravest of its kind since World War II.
Some quarter million Syrians have died and 11 million, literally half the country, have been displaced since civil war broke out five years ago. Over four million have fled. But the West had largely turned a blind eye because these folks have been warehoused in countries neighboring Syria, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey. However, after years of living in a political limbo, often in sordid camps, waiting to be permanently resettled, desperate refugees have started undertaking the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. Even before the latest disasters, more than 1,600 Middle Eastern migrants have died this year trying to get to European shores.
But heartbreaking pictures last week of the lifeless body of Aylan, a Syrian toddler, dressed neatly in shorts, shirt and sneakers, lying facedown on a Turkish beach, finally shocked the world. (Aylan, along with his mother and brother, drowned within minutes of embarking when their boat capsized and the captain fled, leaving his grieving dad, a Syrian barber, as the sole survivor.)
Germany, which was already making arrangements to receive thousands of refugees trying to make their way to it via Hungary, has emerged as the unexpected hero of the situation. It is preparing to absorb 800,000 refugees, about 1 percent of its population. France has pledged to take in 24,000. Canada will accept 11,000. Even Britain and Australia, both in the grips of a nativist spasm, have each been shamed into taking 20,000 and 15,000 respectively.
How many is the U.S. taking in? As per a recent announcement by the Obama administration, a pathetic 10,000 next year.
This might seem like an act of courage given that GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker has flat out said that America shouldn't admit more Syrian refugees—never mind that this will run afoul of both domestic and international law, under which America is obligated to give anyone fleeing persecution or torture the right to obtain asylum. But thanks to fears that ISIS or other Islamist terrorists will abuse the asylum system to infiltrate the United States, America has been making Syrians jump through impossible hoops.
It admitted 36 Syrian refugees in 2013, 105 in 2014, and 350 till March of this year—when the Obama administration upped its pace to admit a grand total of 1,500. This is pathetic compared to the 17,000 of the registered refugees that the U.N. High Commission has already referred to the United States, let alone the millions who are dispossessed and destitute. (Usually, America absorbs at least half of UN referrals.)
Human rights agencies—along with 14 senators—have urged him to admit 65,000 Syrians in 2016 in addition to the 70,000 others that the U.S. admits worldwide every year. But Obama is way short of that goal because he is deathly afraid of a political backlash from the likes of anti-immigration Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). King has held congressional hearings to play up the threat of terrorists allegedly attempting to "take advantage" of America's "safe haven." But how credible are King's fears? Not very.
Asylum seekers have always been subject to the most rigorous screening of all prospective immigrants (partly because they get instant permanent residency if their applications are approved), making this route a particularly bad bet for terrorists trying to sneak in. Middle Eastern refugees face extra burdens and extra layers of multi-agency scrutiny. For example, until recently, Syrians who had so much as inadvertently served a sandwich to a jihadi were denied admission for violating America's rule against providing "material support" to a terrorist. It would be far easier for terrorists to enter as tourists—or via smuggling networks.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that there aren't very many examples of refugees-turned-terrorists in America.
The most oft-cited example involves two Iraqi refugees resettled in Bowling Green, Kentucky, who were indicted in 2011 for providing arms to al Qaeda. Then there are the Tsarnaev brothers who perpetrated the Boston blasts. But they didn't receive asylum, their parents did. Other than that, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, invited by Rep. King to offer Congressional testimony, could find only three examples… from 1993.
Given that America has been admitting 70,000 refugees annually, these examples suggest not a cause for alarm but the opposite. If anything, they prove that refugees are less prone to mass violence than other groups. Indeed, spurning Syrians won't keep terrorists out as much as it will the next Steve Jobs or Jerry Seinfeld—not to mention a source of economic growth. Refugees tend to be more motivated and entrepreneurial than natives, successfully starting businesses at a higher rate, according to a 2012 study conducted by Chumra Economics and Analytics of refugees settled in Cleveland. As The Atlantic's James Fallows notes, Syria is offering a fire-sale of human talent that America shouldn't pass up.
The Obama administration can and should do more to help fleeing Syrians. Holding back for security reasons will truncate America's humanity and economy, not enhance its safety.
This column originally appeared in The Week.