Searching for Common Ground

The debate over whether to grant Syrians refugee status in the United States is just the latest in a long list of things over which conservatives and liberals just can’t seem to find any common ground.

Last week’s attack on Paris by Islamic extremists has put many of our citizens on high alert due to concerns that terrorists may be able to infiltrate the vetting system and be accepted into the US as refugees. Republicans and Democrats are finding it difficult to propose a plan that adequately balances compassion with security. More than half our nation’s governors have declared they will refuse the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in their states. Some state politicians have even called for the National Guard to round up settled refugees and ship them back to Syria. The easy thing for liberals to do is call conservatives racists and compare the objections to the acceptance of refugees to Nazi Germany and Japanese Internment.

Predictably, proponents and opponents of refugee resettlement are digging their heels in and showing no signs of budging on the issue. The easy thing to do is just dismiss those on the opposite side of the issue as stupid but it’s also the wrong thing to do. Instead, maybe we should at least try to find some common ground.

We should all consider the possibility that some people are predisposed to be more concerned about security than others. While liberals believe that most concerns voiced by conservatives are unfounded, that doesn’t make those concerns any less real for those who have them. Opposing refugee resettlement doesn’t necessarily make someone a racist or someone who is irrationally afraid.

Liberals would be better served to recognize that risks do exist. A couple of years ago, two terrorists linked to Al Qaeda worked the American refugee system and managed to settle in Kentucky, where the FBI caught the two men attempting to help smuggle weapons into Iraq. They were caught before being able to execute the plan but situations like that give rise to the current concern. Others are alarmed from the discovery of fake passports that suggest extremists are attempting to cross international borders by posing as Syrian refugees. One of these passports was recovered from the scene of the Paris attacks but none of the attackers have been identified as actual refugees from Syria.

Depending on whether you lean left or right, you will choose to focus on one of those two facts. Liberals will point to the fact that none of the terrorists involved were refugees from Syria. Conservatives focus on the efforts by terrorists to abuse refugee status. Neither is wrong. Some are just predisposed to focus on one more than the other.

Therefore, the responsibility lies on the proponents of refugee resettlement to assure those concerned that the screening process for refugees is very thorough and effective. Making the vetting process more transparent could help calm the fears some have about ineffective screening.

One thing we have to understand is that Syrian refugees are totally different than Mexicans or Latinos arriving at the southern U.S. border seeking asylum. There are stark differences between the processes used to screen and track asylum seekers and refugees. Asylum seekers request admission in the U.S. upon arrival at the border. Refugees request admission to the U.S. while living abroad, where they are screened by both the United Nations and again by interview teams deployed by individual countries.

Refugees who qualify for resettlement have been determined to be in an especially vulnerable situation and must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. Returning refugees to their homes is usually considered the best solution and resettlement is only recommended when it is clear that a person or family couldn’t return to their home country even once the conflict has calmed down. These groups include religious or ethnic minorities, victims of targeted violence, dissenters, and others who would be at risk upon being returned to their home.

Out of around 4 million displaced people in the world, the U.N. has only referred 130,000 of them for resettlement by the end of 2016. That means 97% of displaced persons don’t get past the U.N.’s scrutiny. Out of those 130,000, the U.N. referred 18,000 to U.S. interview teams who will administer up to 13 security clearance steps that can take 18-24 months.

Some of our screenings include fingerprint and biographic checks and a lengthy in-person overseas interview by specially trained Homeland Security officers who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to ensure the applicant is actually a refugee and is not known to present any security concerns to the U.S. Further, Syrian refugees go through even more security screening  because of the current situation. The details of that additional screening is classified but has been briefed to Congress.

Additionally, because the U.S. would be accepting such a small amount of Syrian refugees over the next year – compared to the 380,000 from the former Soviet Union, 182,000 from Vietnam, and 104,000 from Myanmar that we have no problem letting in – the Syrian refugees should be easy to place and track if need be. The 2,000 or so Syrian refugees that are already here have been resettled in small groups. So it’s not like we’d just be plopping 10,000 Syrians down in the same community.

Lastly, there is concern over refugees being able to assimilate themselves into our culture. Refugees are refugees because they are escaping a horrible living situation. So theoretically they would be appreciative for the nation that provides them a new home. For it to work, however, we have to place informed trust in the screening processes and not discriminate against those who may look differently than we do.

Liberals should not be so quick to dismiss the legitimate security and safety concerns of others. It’s something liberals – myself included – do all to often. In order to fix this problem we need to have honest and open discussions about the concerns and the solutions to the problem.

Extending help to those in need doesn’t mean ignoring the risks involved but acknowledging the risks doesn’t mean ridding ourselves of compassion. If we really want to make America great again, we need to stop dismissing everyone who doesn’t think exactly like we do and respect the opinions of others. Then, and only then, we will become the nation we have the potential to be.


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A lucky man. Also a lawyer. Classic oxymoron.

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