Opinion: Saving Syrians – Landing the U.S. on the right side of history

In the summer of 1939, the MS St. Louis, a German ship carrying 908 Jewish refugees fleeing from Germany, was prohibited entry to the United States and Cuba. Instead, the ocean liner and its passengers were forced to return to Europe. Roughly a quarter of those on board would be killed in concentration camps.

An act of Congress or an executive order from President Roosevelt could have prevented the tragedy, but due to widespread xenophobia, neither occurred. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 83% of Americans opposed relaxing immigration restrictions near the time of the incident.

The previous year, more than 300,000 Germans, the majority of which were Jewish refugees, applied for U.S. visas. Roughly 20,000, one out of fifteen, were admitted. That year, a bill set to admit an additional 20,000 (predominately Jewish) German refugee children was allowed to perish in committee due to anti-immigrant sentiment.

Time has rightfully judged such events poorly.

Three-quarters of a century later, the world is again in a state of crisis. This time, the epicenter is located in Syria and the Middle East than Germany and Europe. In about four and a half years, more than half of Syria’s 22.4 million population has been displaced, fled the country or killed.

To date, the United States, a country of 318.9 million people, has accepted a paltry 1,500 Syrian refugees, though President Obama has pledged to accept an additional 10,000 next year. The much smaller countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have welcomed millions of refugees. Even Hungary, the country where a camerawoman kicked and tripped refugee migrants, has accepted close to 20,000.

Nevertheless, following the events in Paris, according to many generally Republican officials (and people on my social media feeds…), the United States should not assist in the matter in any way other than to drop some more bombs on the region (to dubious effect).

Thirty Republican governors, including Michigan’s own Rick Snyder, have said they will not welcome Syrian refugees. Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said, “We all have heart and we all want people taken care of, but with the problems our country has, to take in 250,000 — some of whom are going to have problems, big problems — is just insane. We have to be insane. Terrible.”

Ignoring baseless claims like that 250,000 figure, I think it’s important to evaluate the legitimacy of some of the more popular claims that would have those like Chris Christie turn away even “orphans under 5.”

Claim #1 – Syrian refugees will cause more crime, violent or otherwise.

The link between immigrants and crime have been studied for decades and there ultimately has been found no statistical connection between crime or violent crime and immigration. American developmental economist and immigration expert Michael Clemens says nothing suggests refugees are any different.

He notes, “You are at least as much at risk from your current neighbor as you are from any resettled refugee. The United States already extensively vets asylum applicants for links to terrorism, as it should.

Before refugee abroad are admitted into the United States, they are thoroughly vetted in a process that takes two years. Due to greater security concerns, Syrian require up to an additional year of vetting.

None of the 859,629 refugees that have been admitted since 2001 have been convicted of involvement in a terror attack in the United States, let alone successfully carrying out an attack anywhere. Only three have ever been convicted of planning terrorist attacks outside the United States (none of which were successfully executed).

For perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder last year. It’s also worth noting most terrorist attacks in the United States are actually home-grown far-right white nationalists, who are responsible for five times as many deaths as American Muslims.

Despite fears, Americans are still more likely to be killed by falling furniture than by a terrorist.

Claim #2 Syrian refugees were responsible for the Parisian attacks.

The only evidence connecting the attacks to refugees was a Syrian passport that was found near one of the attack sites. That passport is now known to have been purchased from a counterfeiter and is fake.

Regardless, the logic behind excluding thousands of innocents of any demographic from the U.S. due to the actions of a few individuals from said demographic is terrifying. It’s the equivalent of fearing everyone with a PhD from the University of Michigan because one of them turned out to be insane.

Claim #3 Refugees are an expensive burden the U.S. cannot afford at this time.

Research shows refugees typically earn more, work more, and speak superior English in comparison to non-refugee immigrants. As such, refugees will be net long run positive contributors to taxpayers despite the immediate short run costs associated with providing them with initial assistance.

Furthermore, a study on low-skilled Muslim refugees in Denmark concluded they had net “positive effects on native unskilled wages, employment and occupational mobility,” despite some short-run hardships for natives. Early research examining the impact of Syrian refugees in Turkey is finding a similar effect. The refugees displaced similarly unskilled workers, but “generated more formal non-agricultural jobs and an increase in average wages for Turkish workers.”

Meanwhile, of the studies that have found immigrants (not refugees) to decrease wages, they have found them to have marginally negative impacts that at worst, result in a 4.5% reduction in wages for similarly skilled natives. Even if that is the case, it sounds like potentially a reason for taxing a surcharge on refugees and immigrants once they are established in the U.S and redistributing the difference to those harmed – not forbidding their presence.

Claim #4 The U.S. must take care of its own before it burdens itself with others.

I personally never have seen a person who has made this claim provide a remotely accurate representation of the current scope and magnitude of the many safety nets available in the U.S.

Perhaps more can be done to make downtrodden Americans aware of some of these programs, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, whose average cash payment of $2,440 is not claimed by one out of five of those eligible.

Still, by the parameters of those who make this suggestion, if the U.S. does not presently have its act together, it certainly didn’t in any other time in the past, including 1939. It seems unlikely it could ever meet such standards in the future either. As such, I see it as an entirely unconvincing parameter for admitting refugees.


Refugees in the United States have served as Secretary of State, founded major corporations like Intel and became famous directors. Excluding them and condemning them to a life of poverty and hardship even though they are likely net boons (with at worst, correctable drawbacks) is a moral outrage.

The same is true even if they happen to be Muslim. Take the example of the 70,000 mostly Muslim Bosnians who have made a community in St. Louis after escaping the war-torn former Yugoslavia during the mid-1990s.

“It’s easy to depict the resettlement of Bosnians in St. Louis – predominantly Bosnian Muslims, called Bosniaks, but also Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs, all fleeing war – as a prototypical American success story. In less than two decades, refugees who arrived with proverbial pennies in their pockets have bought cars, then homes, seen their children graduate from American high schools, then colleges.

In less than a generation, Bosnian-St. Louisans have become doctors, lawyers, insurance agents, bankers, professors, tech specialists, entrepreneurs. They have buoyed the population of the city of St. Louis, improved the safety of their neighborhoods, built three mosques, formed a Chamber of Commerce, cracked the code of American capitalism, and plugged into an international network of Bosnian media and Bosnian culture in diaspora.”

Is that not the American Dream?

 


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