Thoughts for liberals and conservatives about Syrian refugees

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Kevin Drum (Mother Jones)—certainly a man of the left—has excellent advice for liberals about Syrian refugees:

[T]o the average person, it seems perfectly reasonable to be suspicious of admitting Syrian refugees to the country. We know that ISIS would like to attack the US. We know that ISIS probably has the wherewithal to infiltrate a few of its people into the flood of refugees. And most voters have no idea how easy it is to get past US screening. They probably figure it's pretty easy.

So it doesn't seem xenophobic or crazy to call for an end to accepting Syrian refugees. It seems like simple common sense. After all, things changed after Paris.

Mocking Republicans over this—as liberals spent much of yesterday doing on my Twitter stream—seems absurdly out of touch to a lot of people. Not just wingnut tea partiers, either, but plenty of ordinary centrists too. It makes them wonder if Democrats seriously see no problem here. Do they care at all about national security? Are they really that detached from reality?

The liberal response to this should be far more measured. We should call for tighter screening. Never mind that screening is already pretty tight. We should highlight the fact that we're accepting a pretty modest number of refugees. In general, we should act like this is a legitimate thing to be concerned about and then work from there.

Mocking it is the worst thing we could do. It validates all the worst stereotypes about liberals that we put political correctness ahead of national security. It doesn't matter if that's right or wrong. Ordinary people see the refugees as a common sense thing to be concerned about. We shouldn't respond by essentially calling them idiots. That way lies electoral disaster.

Let me also offer some advice for conservatives, though based on policy more than politics: Whatever the right answer is here, I don't think that a sole focus on possible Islamic State plants among the refugees can answer this question any more than a sole focus on the Good Samaritan can answer it.

There are benefits as well as costs to allowing refugees, even refugees from places where many people hate us and want to do us harm. Some of the refugees are likely to be especially friendly to the United States, and especially likely to share their knowledge of local conditions, knowledge of the language, and the like. If we're going to be doing war, nation-building or business in Syria in the coming years, Syrian refugees to the United States could be helpful. And, of course, like other refugees, they could just become productive Americans.

Also, if we don't let the refugees in, and instead they stay in refugee camps, or in Syria, they may well be more likely to get radicalized there than they would be here. To be sure, a terrorist elsewhere is, all else being equal, much better than a terrorist here. But terrorists elsewhere can easily come here, even without refugee status; no one is going to stop all tourism, for instance, from Arab countries. If we keep Syrian families out, so their children can stew in Lebanese refugee camps, the result may be more Islamic State/al-Qaeda/etc. supporters, some of whom will then come here with bad intentions.

Moreover, helping people fleeing evil all over the world is the American thing to do. We've done it many times before, and on balance it seems to me that we have profited from that. That doesn't mean that we should do it even at prohibitive cost or risk to ourselves, but it's worth doing if the cost and risk can be managed.

To be sure, screening will never be perfect; it won't screen out the really well-hidden Islamic State plant, or for that matter the 10-year-old son of a well-intentioned family who becomes radicalized by extremist friends or imams when he grows up. But allowing refugees, with screening, is at least something that we should be considering.

Again, it's possible that thoroughly analyzing the apparent costs and benefits will indeed counsel in favor of blocking all Syrian refugees. But I think the best attitude is "Let's see what makes sense"—including "Let's see if we can maintain enough security while also maintaining traditional and historically profitable American hospitality and charity towards refugees"—rather than "Hell no."

Thanks to Instapundit for the pointer to Kevin Drum's post.