President Donald Trump cares so deeply about the suffering of the Syrian people that he didn't even feel the need to obtain congressional authorization before launching air strikes against Bashar al-Assad's regime. But if Trump really wanted to help Syrians escape Assad's chemical butchery, he wouldn't be dispatching Tomahawk missiles to Syria—he would be sending American ships to bring Syrians here.
Instead, Trump has systematically gutted America's refugee program. In particular, he has spurned the very Syrians he is now trying to save from a man he has called a "monster" and an "animal."
When Trump assumed office, the Syrian conflict had displaced about 12 million people, producing the worst refugee crisis that Europe had experienced since World War II. Yet America had taken in fewer desperate Syrians than the Middle East, Turkey, Europe, or Canada. Indeed, Canada, a country that has less than a tenth of America's population, has admitted more than twice as many Syrian refugees.
As if that was not bad enough, one of Trump's first acts as president was to suspend America's refugee program for six months to ensure that no terrorist could sneak in through it. When he reinstated it, he slashed America's total refugee quota from 110,000 to 45,000—the lowest in the program's history—and made an already onerous screening process practically unusable.
Even before Trump's extreme vetting, refugees had to endure a two-year-long, multi-agency process that automatically disqualified anyone who had so much as served a sandwich to a jihadi. (That counted as "material support" for terrorism!) It took non-Syrian refugees about two years from the time they approached a U.S. embassy abroad or an intermediary such as the United Nations to get a referral to the relevant American authorities. After that, the refugee still would have a dozen or so other hurdles to cross in the U.S., including medical screening, several in-person interviews, and background checks by various federal agencies, among other things.
If the refugees were from Syria—ISISland—they faced an additional "Enhanced Syrian Review" to rule out fraud, adding several more years to their processing time.
Even under the regular visa vetting process, according to a study released by the Cato Institute's David Bier yesterday, America experienced a dramatic drop in its already low vetting failure rate after 9/11. Indeed, from 2002 to 2016, it experienced one vetting failure for every 29 million visa or status approvals, for a grand total of 13 failures. And that's using a ridiculously broad definition of failure in which Bier counted even private thoughts that later became public. He also included anyone who committed an offense within a decade of entry even without evidence that they radicalized before entry. After 9/11, he found, vetting failures accounted for just 9 percent of terrorism deaths, while U.S.-born offenders killed 82 percent of the country's terrorism victims.
Only God could make the vetting process more foolproof, which doesn't mean Trump would leave it to Him. Indeed, the administration has added more hurdles to the refugee screening process overall and for Syrians in particular (and is working on making the regular process equally insane). Bob Carey, a former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, observes that the refugee program isn't just being managed, "its being managed to fail."
The recent admission numbers testify to that.
The Niskanen Institute's Matthew La Corte has documented that from last October to March this year, the administration has settled only 10,548 refugees—about a quarter allowed under its own truncated quota. How many Syrians are among them? A grand total of 44! "The overall monthly refugee admissions…are the lowest they have been since 2012 and it's not close," La Corte notes.
Nor is the administration likely to make up the deficit in the remainder of this fiscal year, given that it has conducted less than a third as many "circuit rides" as in previous years. (These are when Homeland Security officials travel abroad to conduct refugee interviews to vet prospective refugees.) The administration is admitting as much. When the U.S. slashed the refugee quota last year, a State Department official assured that the administration had "every plan to process as many refugees as we can under the ceiling." Now it scoffs that the 45,000 ceiling was the "upper limit" and that the actual numbers of refugees admitted could be lower.
This is all terribly lopsided, given that refugees pose virtually the least possible security risk imaginable. The number of fatal terrorist attacks conducted on American soil by refugees is exactly zero. That hasn't prevented Trump from calling Syrian refugees "snakes," and it didn't keep Vice President Mike Pence, when he was governor of Indiana, from refusing to let them into his state. New Jersey's former governor, Chris Christie, declared that he would not offer refuge even to five-year-old Syrian orphans!
Refugees not only pose little security risk to Americans; they are also a great economic boon. They tend to be entrepreneurial, starting businesses at a much higher rate than other immigrants. Jerry Yang of Yahoo and Sergey Brin of Google were both refugees, and Steve Jobs was the son of Syrian refugees. A Department of Health and Human Services study that the administration tried hard to suppress last year found that over the last decade, refugees generated $63 billion more in government revenues than they cost.
By contrast, Trump's military assault on Syria is going to put America in a $100 million–plus hole. That kind of money would cover the upfront cost for settling almost 12,000 Syrian refugees (given that America spent $582 million in 2014 to settle 70,000 refugees—or about $8,300 per refugee).
That would be a far better use of taxpayer funds, but what would be even better is to let Americans resettle refugees on their own dime. The State Department is inundated with queries from churches, community organizations, corporations who wish to sponsor refugees. Uncle Sam bars them from doing so, many of them end up contributing to overseas relief efforts instead.
Refugee camps at best take people out of harm's way not offer them a chance to rebuild their lives. Canada pioneered a private refugee program four decades ago that by 2015 had settled more than 230,000 refugees. The Obama administration flirted with the idea of allowing a similar system in America but never got around to it.
The Trump administration should do it. It should also redouble its commitment to Syrian refugees and become an example for other countries, as befits a country founded by refugees. The best way to defang Assad isn't by dropping bombs on him. (That, by the administration's own admission, didn't come remotely close to fully degrading Assad's chemical weapons arsenals.) The best way is to deprive him of victims.
Syria's political turmoil is producing what The Atlantic's James Fallow has called a fire sale on human talent. America should scoop up that talent, not put its own blood and treasure on the line.