Controlled by Fear, Controlled by Ignorance: America Keeps Getting the Syrian Refugee Crisis Wrong

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Controlled by Fear, Controlled by Ignorance: America Keeps Getting the Syrian Refugee Crisis Wrong

The Syrian refugee crisis will certainly not be going away in 2016. The growing civil war has already accounted for roughly 320,000 casualties, and humanitarian organizations have faced considerable difficulty providing shelter and supplies to civilians. As of this past November, an estimated 4.2 million Syrians have fled their country to try to escape the violence.

This international crisis has led to heated debates both in the U.S. and Europe as to how nations should best respond. Unfortunately, amidst real concerns regarding the refugees’ impact on national security, public safety and economic stability, the debate has also spawned a new wave of xenophobia, isolationism and cultural prejudice in the U.S.—and it’s far from the first time. This article attempts to tackle those issues and show that negative sentiments about Syrian refugees, while historically on par with American public opinion, are not grounded in reality.

They’re Already Coming Here (And That’s a Good Thing for Us)

By the end of 2015, the U.S. was slated to take in about 1,500 Syrian refugees. However, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, that number will likely be going way up.

“[The President has] informed his team that he would like them to accept—at least make preparations to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year,” he said during a September 10, 2015 press briefing.

This of course has led to protests and concerns regarding the burden these refugees will place on our economy and our social welfare programs. That’s because the mountain of evidence that should dissuade these fears continues to be ignored.

In October 2013, a report prepared for the Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland found that in the past decade, refugees in the city started at least 38 independent businesses, with a total of 141 employees. These businesses contributed 175 jobs and $12 million in spending in 2012. The state collected $1.8 million in tax revenue that came directly from these activities, and refugees accounted for 248 additional home purchases.

This is not the only study to reach these conclusions. Another from Texas A&M compared the impact of a select group of refugees to that of traditional immigrants. According to this study, sampled refugees earned 20 percent more, worked more hours, and improved their English skills by 11 percent compared to their immigrant counterparts.

As for taking jobs away from native citizens, that hasn’t happened in other countries. Researchers at Copenhagen and the University of California, Davis, concluded that “the increased supply of non-EU immigrants in a Danish municipality pushed the less educated native workers to pursue more complex and less manual-intensive occupations.” As a result, these natives then received higher or at least unchanged wages.

If none of these studies are convincing enough, consider this: you can likely thank the son of a Syrian migrant for the very device you’re using to read this article. Abdulfattah Jandali was born in 1931 and grew up in Homs, Syria. His son, Steve Jobs, would go on to found Apple, Inc.

Jerry, Seinfeld, Mitch Daniels, Mona Simpson, Paula Abdul and Teri Hatcher are descendants of Syrian migrants.

Our Xenophobia is Nothing New

Opening the doors to Syrian refugees continues to be an unpopular idea in national polls. According to Gallup, 60 percent of Americans oppose plans to receive the President’s proposed 10,000 refugees. This position is in keeping with how America has received refugees in the past.

Only 36 percent of those polled favored more Vietnamese immigration in 1975, when President Ford signed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act. Even farther back, the Wagner-Rogers Bill of 1939 would have allowed for 20,000 refugee children from Germany—many of whom were Jewish—to be relocated into American homes. More than 60 percent of those polled rejected the idea, and the bill subsequently died. Just after our war with Great Britain ended, stanch Federalist Harrison Otis warned that too many immigrants would undermine the work of getting the Colonials’ new nation off the ground. There is hardly an era in American history in which many of its citizens did not oppose an influx of foreigners.

Security Risks: the 1940s and Today

Republicans have been quite vocal regarding the grave security threats Syrian refugees would pose to their country.

“As I say, both the profile and the motive of terrorist organizations … to me would persuade the administration to go slow, rather than fast, when it comes to admitting individuals who might do us harm,” said Texas Representative Lamar Smith during a hearing on worldwide threats and Homeland Security challenges.

Donald Trump, as is often the case, has been more blunt on the subject.

“We have no idea who these people are, we are the worst when it comes to paperwork,” he told CNBC. “This could be one of the great Trojan horses.”

A position Julia Cantacuzene would likely agree with. The grand-daughter of Ulysses S. Grant, The Intercept’s Lee Feng reports that she became a Republican activist in New York who strongly opposed the arrival of Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, claiming that many would be Communist plants.

“I have heard on good authority that an Executive Order has given immigration authorities permission to let down the usual bars in favor of the so-called Jewish refugees in Germany,” she said in a 1938 New York Times article. “…Under these lax regulations, many Communists are coming to this country to join the ranks of those who hate our institutions and want to over throw them.”

We’ve Denied Visas Before

These perceived security threats have led many to push for a rejection of visas from Syrian migrants. More than half of America’s governors say that they directly oppose an intake of Syrian refugees. Rand Paul wanted the federal government to reject visas from applicants whose home countries harbor an active “jihadist movement.” But a denial of visa applications is what most prevented Otto Frank from saving his family in the 1940s.

“I am forced to look out for emigration and as far as I can see, U.S.A. is the only country we could go to,” Frank wrote to a friend in 1941. However, he applied for visas for his family after the Immigration Act of 1924, and restrictions prevented those with family ties still in Germany to be cleared. Despite his social connections, Frank failed in obtaining his visas. His family was arrested in 1944, and all but Otto died during the Holocaust.
Our aversion to welcoming refugees from a war-torn Middle East comes out of legitimate concerns regarding safety and our national economy. Yes, we should consider these matters thoroughly as we weigh our obligation to the world community.

But the problem lies in how we go about drawing conclusions. As we have so often done in the past, we allow our fears to act as confirmation for themselves, and ignore evidence suggesting that refugees have something to contribute to their adoptive country besides a financial burden and a security risk. As long as our public debate favors ginned up paranoia and fear-mongering over rationalism and intellectual honesty, history will be forced to repeat itself.

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