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Volokh Conspiracy

The moral and strategic case for admitting Syrian refugees


The debate over admitting Syrian refugees to the US has rapidly become a hot-button political issue. Thirty-one, mostly Republican-controlled, state governments have announced they will refuse to let in any more Syrians. As with many partisan debates, there is no shortage of overheated rhetoric on both sides. Still, the case for taking Syrian refugees easily outweighs opposing considerations.

As in the case of other potential migrants, it is wrong to forcibly consign large numbers of people to lives of poverty and oppression unless that is the only way to prevent some still greater evil. And in this instance, the risks on the other side are nowhere near great enough to justify such a draconian policy.

Syrian Refugees 2

I. The Moral and Strategic Case for Admitting Refugees.

Many of the Syrian refugees in question are fleeing the brutal oppression and terrorism of ISIS—the very force we are fighting against ourselves. Others are fleeing the mass-murdering regime of Bashar Assad, which at this point is only modestly less oppressive than ISIS. Even if they are not forced to return to their original homes, for most of them the alternative to admission to the US or some other Western nation is life in refugee camps with little freedom, and horrendous living conditions. For that reason, the moral case for allowing them to migrate freely is even stronger than for most other migrants.

Even aside from moral and humanitarian considerations, taking in refugees is in the strategic interest of the US and its allies. Republican immigration restrictionists and European right-wing nationalists are not the only ones who oppose letting Syrian refugees settle in the West. ISIS feels exactly the same way. They vehemently oppose refugee resettlement in the West for a variety of reasons. Among other things, they fear that this will weaken it by reducing the number of people under their rule, and that Muslims in the West will be influenced by our "infidel" liberal values. Ironically, ISIS has much greater confidence in the appeal of Western civilization than do many right-wing nationalists in the West itself. ISIS' fear of ideological contamination is far from an idiosyncratic view among our enemies. Anti-Western regimes in Moscow, Teheran, Pyongyang, and elsewhere have the same fears, which is why they feel it necessary to ruthlessly suppress the spread of Western values and ideas. Perhaps they understand something about the appeal of Western ideals that some Westerners themselves have lost sight of.

In addition to spreading our values, admitting Syrian refugees also incentivizes more people to flee areas under ISIS rule, which in turn diminishes the resources and manpower available to the enemy. The prospect of living in the West is a much stronger inducement to leave than the prospect of a miserable life in a refugee camp. This is another crucial reason that ISIS opposes the flight of refugees to the West, and we should welcome it. Furthermore, as former FBI agent Asha Rangappa points out, some of the refugees could turn out to be valuable intelligence assets.

ISIS' opposition to migration to the West also reduces the likelihood that the refugees will include ISIS agents and sympathizers. True ISIS supporters are far more likely to stay put and fight for their cause in the Middle East, as their leaders demand.

II. Why the Risks are Relatively Small.

It would be foolish to claim that taking in Syrian refugees is a completely risk-free proposition. The vetting system is far from perfect, and in any large group there are bound to be some dangerous individuals. If you oppose letting in migrants unless and until we can reduce the risk to zero, then your principles require opposing the admission of Syrian refugees.

But the same principles would also justify rejecting most of the other immigrant groups that have entered the US since the founding of the nation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews, Italians, Poles, and other immigrants from central and eastern Europe were disproportionately represented among the left-wing anarchist terrorists who were the principal terrorist threat of the day. For example, Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley in 1901, was the son of a Polish immigrant.

In the 1930s, many Americans opposed taking German Jewish refugees in part because the Nazis might take the opportunity to slip in some spies or saboteurs. This was not a completely ridiculous concern. Many German Jews were highly assimilated, and it would not have been difficult for a Nazi gentile to pretend to be Jewish in order to enter the US. No one could prove ahead of time that the Nazis weren't going to try this. During the Cold War, critics opposed the admission of refugees from Cuba, Hungary, Vietnam, the USSR and other communist states, in part because some might turn out to be communist agents. The KGB and its post-Soviet successors did in fact make considerable use of sleeper agents, though most were not disguised as refugees, but as native-born Americans.

In each of these cases, it is obvious, especially in retrospect, that the benefits of taking refugees fleeing oppression greatly outweighed the risks, even though the latter were not completely imaginary. Even aside from the enormous benefits to the refugees and their descendants, America would be far worse off if we had barred Italians, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, and others.

The same is true today. Since 9/11, only a small handful of the hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees admitted to the US have been caught attempting acts of terrorism, and none have actually succeeded. Despite some claims to the contrary, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings were not refugees, but arrived in the US as small children of an asylum seeker (a category not subject subject to the same degree of vetting as refugees).

Even if you set aside legal and policy distinctions and attribute the three people killed by the Tsarnaevs to refugees, that still makes the death toll from refugee terrorists in recent decades far smaller than that from domestic far-right terrorists, such as Dylann Roof, who alone killed more Americans than all refugee terrorists combined. Such attacks are rare, but acts of terrorism by refugees are rarer still. We cannot know for certain that the child of a Syrian refugee won't grow up to be the next Tsarnaev (though such cases are extremely rare). But similarly, we cannot know for certain that the son of a native-born white southerner won't grow up to be the next Roof, or that the son of a native-born leftist won't grow up to be the next Bill Ayers (though both types of cases are rare, as well).

If Roof's atrocity and others like it do not justify inflicting massive harm on large numbers of people with similar demographic characteristics (even if doing so would slightly reduce the risk of similar attacks in the future), the same point applies to refugees. As a practical matter, any well-organized terrorist group can find more effective ways to sneak operatives into the country than to try to get through the elaborate and time-consuming vetting system for refugees.

Not every argument for admitting Syrian refugees is defensible. Refugee advocates have committed their share of rhetorical excesses, such as claiming that all or most opposition to them is the result of racial or religious bigotry. But their mistakes do not change the bottom line. As during the struggles against Nazism and Communism, accepting refugees fleeing our enemies in the war against radical Islamism is both a moral imperative and good strategy.