Thoughts on the Refugee Order
In the little more than two days since President Trump signed an executive order barring Syrian refugees indefinitely from entering the United States, and placing a 120-day moratorium on all refugee admissions, there has been no shortage of commentary on the matter. Social media, news media coverage of all kinds, protests and a virtual avalanche of memes have been evoked by the president’s order. The tenor of this discourse has ranged from jubilation at the president’s common sense approach to national security to dismay over the abandonment of our most sacred national principles.
Given the sheer volume of commentary I almost abandoned this work as hopelessly superfluous. But, I was drawn back to it by a perceived shortcoming in the widespread banter of late on immigration and refugee admissions policies. Specifically, the greatest part of available commentary has addressed this entirely as a partisan issue, seeking to excoriate one side or the other either as hopelessly naïve to the point of negligence, or as inexcusably inhumane and lacking any sense of decency. When faced with these extremes, the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle ground: the realm increasingly abandoned by major media outlets and fake news generators alike.
I hope, then, to bring an Independent – as in someone who cares for no particular party – voice to the fray, and perhaps consider it from a perspective that may be new for some readers. In that pursuit I would like to briefly (a relative term) explore the president’s executive order on refugee admissions, particularly in regard to Syria, in terms of the following: how it shapes up compared to the previous administration; what efficacy we can expect from this order; how this order squares with a nation that widely purports to follow Christian values; and finally, what the overall impact and effectiveness of this order may be.
Who am I to be writing on this topic?
Thank you for asking. I am by no means an expert on refugee admissions, immigration policy, international diplomacy or any of the other intricacies involved in this debacle. I do have some background, however, that might allow me to speak intelligently on this topic (you’ll have to judge the outcome on that score).
I attained a degree in political science from the US Naval Academy, capped by an honors thesis on counterinsurgency. I served seven years as a Naval Officer, including a brief tour at the Secretary of the Navy’s Middle East and Africa desk at the Pentagon and a combat deployment (afloat) during the late unpleasantness in Iraq. I had the pleasure of serving an internship in Syria in 1993 as a Malcom Kerr Scholar with the National Council on US-Arab Relations, and later in Israel with the Jewish Institute on National Security Affairs. In 2007 I completed a master’s degree in political science with an emphasis in public policy and political philosophy, and have worked six years as a journalist.
As I said, none of that background makes me an expert on this topic. But, I do possess the one qualification that should suffice to educate oneself and speak out on this and all matters of national government: I am a citizen. I hope to use whatever depth of understanding and perspective my background may give me to think, learn and communicate intelligently on this topic, and I pray all my fellow citizens will undertake to do the same.
Why was this done?
The reason for the president’s order, if we believe the stated intent, may be given away by its name: “Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” Fair enough. I think we’d all like to be protected. We don’t want foreign terrorists waltzing into our midst, and recent terrorist attacks in Europe give plenty of evidence to underscore the apparent need to protect ourselves from this threat.
President Trump, in signing the order, reiterated this need: “We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, who once vehemently disagreed with candidate Trump’s plan to ban entry for all Muslims, now agrees with the executive order (admittedly not as stringent as Trump’s campaign proposal of a total ban), stating “Our number one responsibility is to protect the homeland.”
On the surface, it’s not hard to understand how this could be seen as good, common sense policy. If our enemy is over there, and we don’t want them to kill us over here, we simply do not allow them to come here. Simple. Except, it isn’t. The president’s executive order may be reassuring to those who fear an imminent attack by extremists who have hijacked the word Muslim and turned it into a weapon of tremendous psychological warfare.
And, to be clear, I do not discount the very real threat posed by extremism – in all its forms – and the need to protect ourselves and our nation from attack. But, what will this executive order do to make us safer? Will it? Or is its effect almost entirely designed to both placate and stoke the fears of a political base here at home?
Some perspective on the order
I’ll admit, again, the order may seem to make sense from a national security perspective (if we discount all other relevant factors). But, to dig beneath the surface and really understand what this order does – and more importantly, doesn’t – do, it’s instructive to consider it in relation to refugee admissions policy since the Syrian conflict started in 2011.
In the first three years of the war – 2011 to 2013 – we admitted a cumulative total of fewer than 100 refugees from Syria. In 2014 we admitted 105, then 1,293 in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis. Thus, in the first five years of the Syrian civil war (conflict is a bullshit term) – a war prolonged by our foreign policy, mind you – the previous administration admitted a total of less than 1,500 Syrian refugees. Meanwhile more than 1.3 million refugees were filing for asylum in Europe. Do some quick math, and you see we took in roughly one-tenth of one percent of the documented tired, poor, huddled masses clamoring across borders in Europe.
President Obama increased our admission of Syrian refugees to more than 10,000 in 2016: a significant increase over the previous years, but still an insignificant remedy to an international emergency we were complicit in perpetuating. For those who feel 10,000 refugees is a large number to take in one year, I offer the following (already reported in the New York Times and elsewhere) for perspective: in 1979 we accepted 111,000 Vietnamese refugees, then 207,000 more the following year; during the Mariel boatlift from Cuba we accepted more than 120,000 refugees, including more than 80,000 in one month alone. So, arguments that infrastructure, social services, etc. simply cannot handle more than we’ve been accepting clearly are not instructed by our history.
Of course, we don’t accept refugees only from Syria (that is, when we do accept them). So, let’s look at the total refugee admissions cap: the total number of refugees from all nations we permit to enter the country in a fiscal year. Much has been made of President Trump’s order to lower the cap to 50,000 for FY17. But, where has it been in the past?
The cap stayed fairly constant at 70,000 to 80,000 in the decade FY06-FY16, spanning presidents Bush and Obama. The cap was reduced from 80,000 in 2011 to 70,000 in 2013 to 2015. That means as the Syrian conflict was worsening, and demand for places to resettle Syrian refugees was becoming critical, the Obama administration actually reduced the cap on total refugee admissions. It was bumped back up to 85,000 for FY16, then increased again to 110,000 for FY17 – though, since Obama would be president for only one quarter of FY17, it is questionable how much that increase was policy intent and how much political posturing in a campaign season.
It is also worth noting that actual admissions lagged significantly behind the cap in 2011 and 2012: we took in roughly 56,000 and 58,000 refugees those years, respectively. So, comparing President Trump’s 50,000 cap to recent history, we see an 11-14% reduction from actual admissions in the first two years of the Syrian war and a roughly 28% reduction in cap for the majority of the refugee crisis.
Now, those numbers mean something only if you care about whether or not we, as a nation, remain a refuge for those seeking a better life. Or, if you care about which party to celebrate or blame. On the latter score, we see an insignificant difference between current policy and that of the last administration, when compared to the totality of the crisis. If you do believe we should continue to offer hope to the world’s most vulnerable (and I do), then President Trump’s executive order is a step in the wrong direction.
But, despite rhetoric to the contrary, it is not an immense departure from our recent past. We are going from a token pittance, made more for political posturing than in pursuit of any substantive remedy to the situation, to doing nothing. Thus, while we are going in the wrong direction, it is a relatively small step. Our net contribution to addressing the Syrian refugee crisis is going from laughably inconsequential to non-existent.
Now, what it turns into from there: that’s a whole other issue, of which we should be very wary.
The efficacy of “Keeping ‘Them’ Out”
But, what of the desired end? Will this policy keep us safer? I believe the short answer is ‘No, at least not in any significant measure.’
To substantiate that, I turn to an argument favored by many of my conservative friends who applaud the barring of Syrian and Muslim refugees. The argument has not to do with refugees but with guns, or specifically gun-free zones. Proponents of the Second Amendment (of which I am one) argue that gun-free zones are driven by political motivation and emotion, but do nothing to prevent mass killings. The crux of the argument is that a would-be shooter will likely not heed a gun-free zone ordinance if their intent is to commit a much more grievous crime.
Likewise, if a would-be terrorist plans to enter the United States for the purpose of initiating an attack, it is unlikely he or she will be much deterred by the president’s executive order. To believe the order, paired with the much-promised strengthening of our southern border, would prevent such entry is to ignore our border with Canada and our very porous Atlantic and Pacific coastlines – and the unlikelihood of stemming undocumented immigration from Mexico.
Many make the argument that the order will make us safer because terrorists have announced their intent to comingle with refugees to gain entry to target nations. This argument bears some weight in reference to our European allies, where millions of undocumented immigrant refugees have poured across borders with no regulation or vetting. To mix into that group is expeditious, and can be undone only if the authorities manage to track down all of the immigrants and screen them after entry.
In our case, however, we are considering refugees who have been carefully collected in UN refugee sites for vetting prior to entry. That vetting lasts roughly 18-24 months before a refugee is considered for placement in the U. S. Thus, a terrorist would likely not choose this course as the expeditious or easy path to entry when they could much more easily walk across our border with Mexico or Canada.
In the end, then, the president’s executive order is likely only to bar entry to those least likely to wish us harm and most likely to seek a meaningful life in our nation of immigrants. In short, we’re slamming the door in the face of moderate Muslims who desire to become American. We are cutting ourselves off from the very demographic we should be courting if we want to marginalize and eliminate extremism.
I must reiterate that I do not discount the need to remain vigilant and to protect ourselves and our nation. But, if the greatest threat is from undocumented entrants, and not documented adherents to the Refugee Admissions Program who have undergone two years of confinement and scrutiny, then we must consider what this order does to address the real threat of terrorism inside our borders. In the interest of time (I’ve already violated brevity) I won’t even consider domestic terrorist groups or the roughly 16,000 Americans who fall to violent crime each year. Let’s just stick to terrorists moving illegally across international borders.
That threat – the real threat of extremist terrorist attack – is managed and mitigated only by close collaboration with our Allies. We must rely on shared intelligence, operational capacity and diplomatic leverage to keep track of threats to our mutual security. Many of these relationships already were strained during the previous administration by our almost total failure to help our allies deal with the wave of displaced humanity crossing their borders – driven from their homes in a proxy war we were happy enough to prolong, but not committed enough to bring to a conclusion. Much has been made by our new president of these same allies, particularly our NATO allies, and their failure to “pull their weight.”
Look back at the numbers of refugees that have flooded society and social services in our NATO allies. Compare those numbers to the embarrassingly small contribution we have made. Consider the immense financial toll the refugee crisis is taking on those countries. Now, try to put yourself in their position, and think how you’d feel about a president who both ridicules you for not contributing enough and eliminates his token trickle of refugee admissions.
Don’t get me wrong: no-one in Europe thinks we ever had a meaningful refugee placement program. But the out-of-hand elimination of the small program we did have, with regard to Syria, is a slap in the face to our allies who are shouldering far more than their share of the fallout in this war. And if that further damages relations with our allies – which it most certainly will – then the president’s order stands to do far more harm than good to our collective security.
In summary, with regard to efficacy, we see that the president’s executive order does very little to promote short-term security, poses a greater threat to long-term security by damaging alliances, and pushes us further from meaningful engagement with the moderate Muslims who must reclaim their religion from extremists if we desire a meaningful and lasting peace. The executive order may be brilliant stagecraft for pandering to a xenophobic political base, but it is worse than inconsequential with regard to national security.
The “Christian” Perspective
This matter certainly is not a question only for Christians. But, it is a matter being decided by a president who was elected predominantly by conservative Christians – some of whom proclaim him ordained by God. And we popularly style ourselves a Christian nation, or at least a nation guided by Christ’s teaching. And, I am a Christian and I hope to follow Christ. So, it is appropriate to consider whether the president’s order is compatible with Christ’s Gospel.
Let’s say we set aside all of the practical concerns we’ve outlined above. Maybe you think it’s all just hogwash, and we’re better off keeping Muslim refugees out of this country because we identify ‘Muslim’ with ‘terrorist.’ Doesn’t the president’s order make sense, then? Can’t we just keep out refugees if they come from someplace scary? Well, not if you’re a Christian. Okay, not if you actually intend to follow Christ’s teaching. To attempt to justify this order in terms of Christianity begets only one word: hypocrisy.
Pope Francis pulled no punches on this count during a public address last October.
“You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian,” he said.
“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he said. “If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”
Harsh? Perhaps. But, then Jesus was pretty harsh at times when it came to hypocrisy and failing to love those in greatest need. Maybe you’re not Catholic. Or, maybe you are Catholic and you’re fed up with the Pope for being “too radical.” Let’s turn to the long-haired, sandal-wearing, dark-skinned, radical Palestinian Jew who started this whole movement in the first place. What would Christ have to say about all this?
You don’t have to search far in the Gospels to find an answer. We’ll start with Matthew 25: 33-46, which in the New Revised Standard Version bears the heading “The Judgment of the Nations.” The passage tells of the Son of Man, at Judgment, separating the nations into sheep on his right, goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
The righteous then ask when they did these things. Jesus replies:
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
The “goats,” the hard-hearted hypocrites, face damnation because they did not live with compassion towards those in need – specifically strangers waiting to be invited in, for the sake of our discourse here.
Some say this passage in Matthew applies only to offering succor to Christ’s family, i.e. to baptized Christians. This view that Christians are meant only to help Christians may be palatable to some afflicted with fear of “them,” but it is entirely unfounded in and contrary to Christ’s message.
Consider Matthew 22: 37-40, in which a Pharisee asks Christ which of the commandments is the greatest:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
There is no asterisk after neighbor. There is no conditional clause as to who is our neighbor: it is open to all whom God may put in our lives, or in this case in the life of our nation. Whoever they are, and however we feel about them, we’re called to love them.
But, would God really call us to welcome someone from a group generally known to be hostile to us? Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A dubious follower asks Christ how to tell “who is my neighbor?” Christ responds with the parable in Luke 10:25-37. The Samaritan wasn’t good simply because he rescued and cared for the Jewish traveler. He was good because he did this in spite of the fact that Samaritans and Jews – as groups – hated each other. The Samaritan had every reason to believe the Jewish traveler, other Jews and Samaritans, would criticize or even harm him for aiding “one of them.” But he did it anyway. Also, Christ is holding up the Samaritan – the dreaded “them” – as the hero in a tale told to Jews. Christ’s answer to the twin questions, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor” is simple and unequivocal: our neighbor is anyone God places along our path, and eternal life lies on the other side of helping them.
It is not enough to love those who love us. It is not enough to love those we know. It is not enough to love those with whom we’re comfortable. Christ makes this clear in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This radical notion of love infused everything Christ taught: love others, especially those who hate you, if you want to follow me. This is the love Christ taught when he summed up his entire teaching (because the Apostles, like us, tended to wander and forget): “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
That’s it. That’s the entire message, summed up by Christ Himself. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Your neighbor is anyone in need, even if you consider them your enemy. And loving your neighbor – even Syrian refugees – is loving God. This is the simple, and yet utterly radical message Christ imparted to the Apostles when he told them “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” The Gospel is love, and all creation needs it.
How, then, can we as a “Christian nation” turn our backs on Muslim refugees from a land torn by war and infested with extremists who hate us? We can’t. We can’t be both. They are our neighbor, like it or not. Either we are a nation inspired and led by Christ, or we are a nation that bars the most imperiled of His children. We cannot be both.
We’ve considered a number of factors surrounding the president’s executive order barring Syrian and Muslim refugees from entry to the United States.
From a Christian perspective, we have found that, no matter how much we might like it to read otherwise, the Gospel is clear: we must love our neighbor, even if that neighbor be an enemy. And loving means helping, and inviting in those in need, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
In terms of short- and long-term security we have found this policy not only ineffective, but likely injurious in the long run to our nation’s safety. But, aside from the physical security question, there is a greater question we must address in closing:
What does this type of policy portend for our ability to win in the protracted fight against extremist terrorism?
We must first determine what it means to win. In this fight there is no clear battlefield objective. There’s no landmark to cross or capital to occupy to claim a definitive victory. Terrorism, by its nature, aims to change an opponent’s principles and values. Winning, then, means preserving our principles and values.
When we allow fear to drive us from one of the core values of our Republic – welcoming immigrants in search of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – we are conceding defeat. When we turn our backs on Christian teaching out of fear, we are conceding defeat. When we vilify and turn our backs on families fleeing a war zone, we turn our backs on both our religious and philosophic foundations. When we give up our principles to assuage our fear, we concede the war rather than risk the loss of a skirmish.
If we must find an enemy to banish from our shores, I propose fear is an appropriate candidate for our universal condemnation. Fear is our true enemy in this fight. Let us turn our backs on fear. Let us refuse to allow it into our country. Keep it out of our homes, our hearts, our government and our policies. For if we let fear in, it will surely change our laws, corrupt our religion, degrade our culture and leave us all slaves to a lesser form of ourselves.
Fear is our enemy. And as of this writing, fear appears to be winning.