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The Way Forward on Refugees

Democrats and Republicans are at an impasse over the issue. But that doesn't have to be the case.

Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Sadik Kukic came to the United States from Bosnia in 1993. At that time Bosnia was consumed by war: Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, territorial disputes had given rise to armed conflict, which eventually led to the attempted genocide of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. Kukic, a Bosniak Muslim, had spent five months in two different Serbian concentration camps when his opportunity to escape arrived. By a stroke of luck, Kukic and a few family members managed to attain refugee status, and made their way to St. Louis.

With the help of the International Institute, a St. Louis-based organization that helps over one million refugees from around the world each year with basic adjustment services, Kukic was able to get a job. “Sadik’s was one of the first Bosnian families we sponsored here in St. Louis,” Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute, told me. “He came straight from a concentration camp. And he managed to survive it and get over here, and we got him a job.” 

Kukic started small, working in a taco joint while learning English. After working his way up to the kitchens of caterers and fine dining restaurants, Kukic started his own place in 2000. Now, with two successful restaurants under his belt, Kukic is the president of the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce, which he describes as “a bridge between” Bosnian-American businesses and other businesses.

Kukic is not alone. These days the Bosnian community of St. Louis numbers over 50,000, having steadily grown from the original 9,000 refugees the city welcomed in the early 1990s. It constitutes the largest Bosnian population outside of Bosnia, one that is predominantly Muslim.

“St. Louis has been a very open community for refugee resettlement,” Crosslin said. The Bosnian community has become such an important component of St. Louis that Mayor Francis Slay was optimistic about reaching out to a new group of refugees: Syrians who had been driven from their homes starting in 2011. The mayor’s office told the New Republic that St. Louis already houses 29 Syrian refugees, and “welcomes more.”

But Crosslin says the International Institute and other similar organizations are facing pressure to halt their efforts. “We’re under fire because of the Syrian refugee resettlement because of naysayers at this point,” Crosslin said, adding that this isn’t her first run-in with anti-refugee sentiment. “I can remember back in the 1970s when Vietnamese people were coming, there were fears ... there would be Viet Cong soldiers who were escaping at the same time. In the 90s there was fear that there would be potential terrorists that would come in with the Bosnians.”

Those fears turned out to be largely unfounded, and now seem a relic of the distant past. But for Syrian refugees, concerns over national security pose a growing obstacle. Both Republicans and Democrats are struggling to stake out a plan that would balance mercy with security; more than half of U.S. governors have declared they will refuse any Syrian refugees sent to their states for resettlement; and some state politicians are calling for the National Guard to round up already settled refugees and send them back. With comparisons to Japanese Internment and vehement suspicion even of orphaned toddlers haunting headlines, it’s clear opponents and proponents of refugee resettlement are at something of an impasse. 

But this doesn’t have to be the case.

The first step would be to recognize that concerns about security are not entirely driven by xenophobic impulses. John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska and author of Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Difference, studies the psychology that distinguishes right-leaners from left-leaners. He told me, “There are some people who simply value security ... much more so than others. When we see conservatives respond to these disgusting and negative stimuli ... it’s not like they run away, in fact they actually pay more attention to them than liberals do.” 

For this reason, Hibbing said, he wouldn’t characterize conservative psychology as dominated by fear, as his research and similar research by others are often summarized. “‘Fear’ is not fully descriptive of how they feel,” Hibbing said of such voters. “They find themselves grabbed by these negative things, so they take them more seriously and they take security more seriously.”

In other words, it isn’t that these concerned conservatives are necessarily racist or dreaming up negative scenarios with no basis in reality. (In fact, some American-settled Syrians have expressed concerns about improperly vetted refugees.) While Hibbing acknowledges that a security-focused perspective is “heavily overlaid with an in-group, out-group view of the world,” the initial impulse steams from a focus on actual risks.

And risks do exist. In 2013, two Iraqi-born terrorists with links to Al Qaeda successfully gamed American refugee services and managed to settle in Kentucky, where an FBI sting operation caught the two men attempting to help smuggle weapons into Iraq. The plan was foiled, but concerns remain, and Kentucky is among the states refusing resettlement of Syrian refugees inside its borders. Alarm has also arisen from the discovery of several fake passports that suggest some are attempting to move across international borders posing as Syrian refugees. One such passport was recovered from the scene of the recent attacks on Paris, though none of the attackers identified so far were actual refugees from Syria.

You could choose to focus on either one of those facts—that none of the terrorists involved in the attacks on Paris were refugees from Syria, or that there have been efforts by terrorists to abuse refugee status. But for Hibbing, the conservative disposition is one that doesn’t want to gamble on risk. “If you’re really attuned to security, it seems to me you would not want to take any chances,” Hibbing said. The mindset is: “Why not just play it safe?”

In that case, the onus is on those hoping to invite refugees into the United States to assure concerned fellow citizens that the screening process for refugees is thorough and effective, and that successful resettlement is possible. More transparency about the vetting process could help allay fears about spotty or ineffectual screening.

Syrian refugees are not asylum-seekers like those who arrive at the southern U.S. border by way of Mexico and Latin America. As Alex Norwasteh points out at Cato, there is a difference between the processes used to screen and track asylum-seekers and refugees. While asylum-seekers request residence in the U.S. upon arrival, refugees request admittance to the U.S. while living abroad, where they are screened both by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and again by interview teams deployed by individual countries.

“People who qualify for resettlement in the U.S. have been determined to be in an especially vulnerable situation,” Crosslin emphasized during our interview Wednesday. “They must be able to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution.” Returning refugees to their place of origin is usually considered the most viable solution, Crosslin said, and resettlement is only recommended when it’s clear an individual or family could not return to their home country even once conflict has subsided. These groups include religious or ethnic minorities, people who have been victims of targeted violence, dissenters, and others who would be at risk upon return.

These vetting processes vastly narrow down the number of individuals who are eligible for refugee status and eventual resettlement in the United States. Out of some four million displaced persons, the U.N. has referred only 130,000 for resettlement by the end of 2016. “Out of 130,000,” Crosslin said, “the U.N. has referred 18,000 to United States interview teams, which will select 10,000.” The 13 security clearance steps which American security personnel administer can take between 18 and 24 months, according to Crosslin, meaning the time between arrival in a refugee center and the U.S. border could exceed two years.

In an email to the New Republic, a State Department spokesperson detailed the screenings that  potential refugees submit to, writing that “safeguards include biometric (fingerprint) and biographic checks, and a lengthy in-person overseas interview by specially trained Department of Homeland Security officers who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to ensure the applicant is a bona fide refugee and is not known to present security concerns to the United States.” The spokesperson added that the State Department is “mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis,” meaning that “Syrian refugees go through yet additional forms of security screening, the classified details of which have been briefed to Congress.”

And because the U.S. is only committed to accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year—compared with the 380,000 it accepted from the former Soviet Union, 182,000 from Vietnam, and 104,000 from Myanmar—these refugees will not be difficult to place or track. So far, the roughly 2,000 Syrian refugees already living in the U.S. have been resettled in small groups, not massive waves. Many communities who are already home to Syrian refugees likely do not know that their neighbors have come from Syria, a situation Crosslin said these families are happy to maintain. “They’re afraid,” Crosslin said, “They’re afraid of being fired, persecuted here, of their kids being bullied in school, that their friends and family back home might not make it over.”

Could Syrian refugees resettle and thrive like Bosnian refugees from the 1990s did? I asked Kukic what he thinks.

“United States is a country of opportunities, so I’m sure they will find themselves in some field,” he told me, “They are refugees, whoever has that status, they’ll know what that means exactly ... I cannot express how appreciative I am to the United States, what it did for me.”

Crosslin is confident that Syrians represent “a population that has every potential of settling as well as if not better than the Bosnians,” as long as Americans are willing to place informed trust in refugee screening processes and get to know their new neighbors. “Syrian newcomers value their families, they have a high respect for education, they appreciate the freedom of religion,” she said.

In Chicago, where the City Council voted yesterday to declare itself a sanctuary city for refugees in a largely symbolic response to Governor Bruce Rauner’s call to temporarily suspend all resettlement efforts in Illinois, Archbishop Blase Cupich sees improved dialogue as part of the solution to the refugee crisis.

“It’s important to recognize the fears people have and not to dismiss them,” Cupich said, adding that “those security and safety concerns do appear to be legitimate.” Cupich views this as an opportunity for Americans to applaud, support, and strengthen the capacities of those involved in screening refugees and resettling them in the U.S.

“We cannot allow those who would terrorize us to win by sowing fear and division in society,” Cupich said, “and allow ourselves to be paralyzed from offering help to those who have been driven from their homes by conflict, who are suffering—it could happen to any of us.” On Wednesday, a tweet from Cupich’s account ensured followers that the Catholic Church will continue to use its charities to aid and resettle those who arrive in the United States, no matter where they come from.

Extending aid does not mean ignoring risks, but acknowledging risks does not mean suspending compassion. It’s a risk we’ll have to take, and one we’ll ultimately have to take together.