Refusing Syrian Refugees is a Lazy, Pathetic, and Unacceptable Excuse for Governance

Last Friday evening, 129 civilians died and another 430 were injured in a series of brutal, coordinated terrorist attacks carried out during a friendly France-Germany soccer game in Paris. ISIS has claimed responsibility and has threatened more violence against major European cities, Washington, D.C., and now New York. France initiated retaliatory airstrikes against ISIS targets, and Russia, now with evidence in hand that an ISIS bomb caused the October 31 crash of a Russian airline that that killed 224 innocent people, has joined the fray too.

One of the many, many details that has emerged during the still-very-much-in-progress official unraveling of this horrible episode is that one of the perpetrators had a Syrian passport. It is so very tempting when faced with a multitude of unknowns to immediately attribute significance to a purportedly concrete detail like this, but frustratingly, the passport is almost certainly fake, and beyond that none of the few facts we know really make any sense. There is apparently a man in a Syrian refugee camp with the same passport; Greece recently granted temporary asylum to someone with the same name as the attacker, but who knows who that person actually was; the man whose name is on the passport actually died a few months back; oh, and we have no idea whether the attacker (whoever he was) was a Syrian at all.

Everyone wishes they knew more. But at this point, they don’t. The rational thing to do would be to remain calm, investigate, see how all the facts fit together, and try and piece together what actually happened here. Unfortunately, the elected executives of thirty-one (!!!!) U.S. states decided to just go ahead and completely lose their fucking minds instead. To reiterate, here are the relevant facts in their entirety:

  1. Human rights advocates call the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria the worst in the world today, affecting over 12 million people, or more than Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and the Haiti Earthquake combined.
  2. Twelve thousand children have been killed during the Syrian civil war, many while serving as human shields, which is a thought that should make you start crying literally right now.
  3. It takes 18-24 months for a refugee to be admitted to the United States.
  4. There are, holy crap, five million registered Syrian refugees.
  5. One of the Paris attackers had a fake Syrian passport.

WHAT’S THE LOGICAL REACTION HERE, GOVERNOR ROBERT BENTLEY OF ALABAMA?

I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way. We refuse Syrian refugees.

Governor Phil Bryant of Mississippi?

I will do everything humanly possible to stop any plans from the Obama administration to put Syrian refugees in Mississippi. The policy of bringing these individuals into the country is not only misguided, it is extremely dangerous.

Governor John Kasich of Ohio, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination?

The governor doesn’t believe the U.S. should accept additional Syrian refugees because security and safety issues cannot be adequately addressed. The governor is writing to the President to ask him to stop, and to ask him to stop resettling them in Ohio.

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who is also seeking the GOP presidential nominahahahaha?

It is irresponsible and severely disconcerting to place individuals, who may have ties to ISIS, in a state without the state’s knowledge or involvement.

And so on and so forth.

I had a professor in college who taught a public policy class in which he argued every semester, to the horror of the latest classroom of bewildered students in front of him, that the Supreme Court’s reviled Korematsu v. United States opinion that upheld the forcible detention of over one hundred thousand Japanese civilians during World War II was a good idea. He contended that locking people up against their will was simply a reasoned response, and was a classic demonstration of the principle of over-insurance: it may not have been likely that there were Hirohito loyalists among the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who lived in the U.S., but if there were, the results would be catastrophic. It was better, he concluded, to take away their property and lock families up for years without anything resembling probable cause than to actually figure out if there was a problem in the first place.

This argument is as batshit as Japanese internment was despicable. In the time-honored American tradition, internment used the immutable characteristic of national origin to make the crudest, most baseless assumptions about people’s character and values. It was also alarmingly, pathetically lazy. Government’s job is to find and prosecute people who actually break the law, so that all of the other people who do not break the law can live normal lives. Discriminating against an entire class that happens to share one feature of what the government thinks a lawbreaker might look like is a fundamental abdication of an elected official’s responsibility to calm down, sit down, think about the problem, and craft a solution.

Americans deserved better in 1942, and the people of these 31 states deserve better today. Surely, the lessons learned from seventy years ago will help elected officials to realize that knee-jerk blanket refusals of Syrian refugees is an ill-adv — wait, what’s that?

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Rocket this country into the sun.

First of all, the joke is on you, you self-righteous dipshits, because everyone who made it past eighth grade knows that Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution entrusts immigration to the federal government, not to the states, and everyone who is an immigration lawyer or at least has access to Wikipedia knows that the Refugee Act of 1980 entrusts the federal Department of Health and Human Services with relocating asylum seekers and ensuring that they get the services they need to start a life in the United States. Declarations that a state “will not admit” Syrian refugees are empty promises that I presume these governors made after three drinks, four hours of watching breaking news on CNN, two kinda-drunk viewings of Zero Dark Thirty, and zero phone calls to actual policy advisors.

But separation of powers primers aside, declaring your state closed to refugees is the laziest form of governance imaginable. Calling it lazy implicitly acknowledges that there is some kind of causal connection between admitting humanitarian refugees and preventing terrorist attacks, which is such a facially absurd premise that it makes me angry to think about the prospect of reasoning with someone who thinks otherwise. It is the latest in a long line of recent policy decisions (from voter ID laws that combat “voter fraud” to onerous welfare reforms that stopped “Cadillac-driving welfare queens” to racial profiling policies that target “hardened criminals”) that address a nonexistent problem in an absurdly heavy-handed way that manages to make everyone worse off. It is akin to banning telecommunications because you know that the local weed dealer sends text messages.

This rhetoric exploits public confusion and fear in the most sinister way possible. It cheapens the Paris tragedy for the chance to score a few cheap, toothless political points — 30 of the 31 governors are Republican — at the expense of the pro-refugee Obama Administration. It is a blind, dangerous, and wild defense mechanism, the choice of people who felt the need to lash out and find a culprit and punish it without caring or even considering what consequences their actions might bring. It responds to hysteria not with reason or courage or principle, but with supplication and placation and appeasement.

Since 2001, the United States has granted asylum to three-quarter of a million refugees (a number that does not include immigrants, as they are admitted to the U.S. under different protocols). Exactly 2 of those 750,000 refugees have been so much as arrested on terrorism-related charges, and not for planning an attack on American soil but for aiding the cause abroad. Even if you buy the argument that there is one extremist among the ranks of Syrian humanitarian refugees — again, a conclusion that literally no data supports, but sure, whatever — the correct policy response is to identify that person and prevent him or her from entering the United States. It is to do the actual work of governing, of analyzing refugees’ needs and your country’s capacity for accepting and supporting them. And it is assuredly not to blithely declare that you’re going to keep your people safe and the terrorists out by keeping anyone who you think looks or sounds like a terrorist out, too.

Lastly, blaming Syrian refugees for the Paris attacks is particularly insidious because it demonizes perhaps the weakest group of all. It satiates the need to blame without having to think about real, serious, and scary propositions: these governors do not have to grapple with the United States’ continued failure to actually stop ISIS, or wonder how many of their constituents will volunteer to fight and die overseas, or consider how Western intervention in Iraq may have (JUST MAYBE) contributed to the rise and continued popularity of ISIS, or one of any other actual “serious issues” that we elect politicians to thoughtfully consider. Instead, they get to prop up, catch, and hang a bogeyman all at once without thinking about this means for millions of families and children. They slap the “other” and the “enemy” labels on an increasingly faceless and helpless group of humans who have been running for their lives from cruel and unyielding ideologues, only to now encounter a different set of cruel and unyielding ideologues on this side who want to see them dead, too.

Fear after a tragedy like Paris is normal and natural. So is the urge to react. But keeping refugees out isn’t going to do a thing to stop ISIS from terrorizing the world. It is a lazy, stupid, discriminatory solution in search of a problem. Our government has done this before to its shame, and it should not do it again.

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