Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
With the current crisis in Syria forcing many to flee, refugees have become a key concern in contemporary politics. Community members, academics, and politicians have argued quite vehemently that the influx of refugees should be slowed – or even stopped – because of the national security threat they pose. However, the data on radical violence in the United States suggests that these fears are likely misguided. Moreover, to refuse asylum to those fleeing hardship would inherently contradict the core values upon which the United States was founded.
Those who argue against refugee resettlement often cite an unfortunate history of refugees presenting a risk to their nation of entry. Some of the most famous terrorist groups around the world (e.g. Hamas, Taliban) were created from refugees who felt ostracized and frustrated in their new communities. Yet, these cases are isolated and most instances demonstrate peaceful refugee resettlement. Currently, the most prevalent national security concern in America is ISIS; but, ISIS is unlikely to place members within the refugee population. Firstly, the vetting process screens all refugees before permitting them entrance, in order to prevent members of terrorist organizations from entering the US. Most refugee applications undergo intense scrutiny and require 18-24 months before relocation occurs. As such, it would be an unwise and inefficient strategy for ISIS to place members within the refugee population as they would likely not be approved for resettlement within a year, if at all. Additionally, ISIS is more likely to recruit American and European Muslims and have them travel back to Iraq and Syria to fight the group’s more immediate enemies in the Middle East. In fact, many refugees entering the US and Europe in recent years are fleeing ISIS’s violence and do not wish to carry this extremism with them to their new home. Therefore, despite the limited historical past of radical violence committed by refugees, it remains unlikely that refugees present a serious threat. Overall, the process for obtaining refugee status is a time-consuming and arduous.
The quantitative data also supports this conclusion. Between September 11, 2001 and October 2015, the US admitted 784,000 refugees. Only three individuals from that group have been arrested for terrorist plots. Moreover, two of those threats were attacks targeting locations outside the US and the third was deemed non-serious. Only 0.00038% of refugees have been linked to radical violence over a fifteen year period. Yet, terrorism has still plagued the US in many forms. With the new influx of Syrian refugees and the history of 9/11 looming in the recent past, jihadists are often cited as the most pertinent threat among the refugee population; however, white supremacists and antigovernment fanatics have killed twice as many people as compared to radical Muslims in the last fifteen years. For instance, in 1995, the US experienced its second most deadly terror attack in modern history. 168 people were killed and over 500 injured in Oklahoma City by the bomb of a homegrown, antigovernment extremist. Dr. Horgan from the University of Massachusetts told the New York Times that “if there’s one lesson we seem to have forgotten 20 years after Oklahoma City, it’s that extremist violence comes in all shapes and sizes.” There is no one face of radicalism. Any man or woman of any ethnicity or race and with any ideological background can radicalize their beliefs and commit violence in the name of their cause. We undermine the truth of extremism if we narrowly assume that Muslim refugees are automatically the only threat.
US General Philip Breedlove testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that the Islamic State has infiltrated refugees entering the US. Breedlove was pushed by the press to reinforce this and similar claims with statistics but was unable to do so. Misinformed comments like this serve only to generate fear and encourage divisions within society, further exacerbating the existing problem of intolerance. If the American public were to acknowledge the true statistics on the connection between refugees and radical violence, it would become clear that welcoming persecuted peoples into the country does not directly threaten society. In fact, domestic gun violence is a greater menace. For every one American killed by radical violence, nearly 1,000 lives have been taken in the US as a result of gun violence. With 9/11 still a fairly-recent memory, people are understandably wary. But it is time to recognize where the real threat lies, as a society is more at risk when it reinforces an ‘us versus them’ mentality and lets fear develop into hatred.
The United States of America was founded centuries ago when men and women fled persecution in their home country. They sought a new beginning in a new land. Since that time, millions have entered the country in pursuit of the American Dream or in order to escape their country of origin. For this reason, the US is often referred to as a melting pot, where cultures and peoples have blended together beautifully. “Some politicians argue against the United States doing its part to help Syrians rebuild their lives in a safe and welcoming country, despite the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have thrived here.” Denying refugees a new home is directly antithetical to the character of the United States. Refugees are not the source of radical violence in the United States, and it is time stop treating them as such and embrace them into our community.