Syrian refugees in Slovenia in October 2015. (Robert Cotič/Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Slovenia)
In the context of arguably the world’s most devastating humanitarian crisis, the United States has opened its doors to a mere 13 Syrian refugees in 2018. This is pitiful in comparison to the approximately 3,000 admitted in 2017 and the 15,000 in 2016. The policies that have effectively prevented any Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. this year must be reconsidered.
The Syrian civil war, now in its eighth year, continues to wreak havoc upon the civilian population, making any return to Syria in the near future unthinkable for the more than five million refugees in neighboring counties. Yet the Trump administration has attempted through executive orders to deny Syrian refugees, among other immigrant and refugee groups from Muslim-majority countries, entry into the U.S. While the full implementation of these orders is currently blocked by the courts, a temporary ban on certain refugees and subsequent additional screening measures have resulted in the paltry Syrian refugee resettlement numbers this year. Meanwhile, overall refugee resettlement has been reduced to its lowest figure in decades.
The U.S. refugee resettlement program has successfully welcomed more than three million refugees since 1980. In the face of the Syrian people’s undeniable suffering, the United States appears to be abandoning a functioning and successful effort to help some Syrians rebuild their lives.
We must reconsider the admission of Syrian refugees in light of the facts. Are there legitimate security concerns? Would Syrian refugees be a drain on the economy? Can they integrate successfully?
To answer the first question about security, it is worth examining the process by which a refugee enters the U.S. The exhaustive screening process for refugees typically takes 18-24 months and involves eight federal agencies, including the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security and the FBI. Syrians undergo an enhanced review process. If there is any doubt about whether an applicant for resettlement poses a threat, they will not be admitted to the U.S. This is why the Cato Institute was able to confidently claim that the chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion. In January, the Department of Homeland Security announced additional security measures for refugees from “high-risk” countries, including Syria. Though it should be noted that no Syrian refugee admitted to the U.S. has been involved in terrorist activity in any way.
The second question reflects the practical economic concerns about refugee resettlement generally. Despite the upfront costs of resettlement and the fact that refugees arrive with no assets, the economic outcomes of refugees improve drastically over time. The improvement is so drastic that after 20 years, a refugee that arrives as an adult contributes more in taxes than they have received in benefits over that time. Furthermore, refugees exhibit high levels of upward mobility and entrepreneurship -- median household incomes for refugees more than triple over 25 years in the U.S. and refugees have a higher rate of entrepreneurship than the general population, with refugee businesses generating $4.6 billion in income in 2015 alone. Rather than being an economic burden, refugees are positive contributors and, through their entrepreneurial activity, job creators.
Finally, cultural concerns abound about Syrian refugees, especially given that they are predominantly Muslim. While much of this is steeped in prejudice, there are more legitimate concerns about integration. Syrian refugees, however, arrive in the U.S. with a built-in support network of 90,000 successful Syrian immigrants from earlier waves of migration. Syrians in the U.S. are more likely to work in a high-skilled occupation, own a business, or have an advanced degree than the general population. 91% of Syrian immigrants have become naturalized citizens, a higher rate than for immigrants overall. They are thus well-positioned to help their newly-arrived compatriots integrate successfully. As the Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham wrote last year, “We are proud Syrian-Americans. We should welcome those seeking refuge now from the terrible atrocities of the Syrian war to become proud Syrian-Americans as well.”
While there are always opportunities for improvement, the U.S. refugee resettlement program has kept us safe, benefited our country’s economy, and provided a remarkable model for humanitarianism that we could be proud of. It is not too late to turn around misguided policies and begin welcoming Syrian refugees again.