Backlash Against Refugees a Sign of Weakness, Not Strength

By Bryan Shu '16

Bryan Shu '16

Bryan Shu '16

In the hours and days following the attacks in Paris, we saw a massive reaction on social media, and a great deal of it I found disappointing.  It was a striking display of tunnel vision: we'd somehow made the events about *us*, *our* immigration policy, *our* national security.  Suddenly, our past decade of involvement and obligations in the region was forgotten, and we managed to paint millions of people in broad strokes.  Fear is a natural response to uncertainty, and it’s valid to acknowledge that we want to make informed decisions based on new and shocking information, but that knee-jerk reaction oversimplifies the issue.

The Paris attack perpetrators were dominantly residents of the EU, not this poorly defined threat of new arrivals that makes for easily consumable rhetoric.  The attacks were motivated by France's long history of contingency operations in the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, not a specific animosity towards the United States.  Some refugees include interpreters who risked their lives working with American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and by all rights have earned a place here, but have had their pleas for entry fall on deaf ears.  It takes an exceptional amount of ego to declare that a broad anti-refugee posture is our best response to a terrorist attempt to derail the international response to a crisis.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… (Image courtesy: Wikipedia).

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… (Image courtesy: Wikipedia).

Through Americentric thinking, we signaled to the world: "We're shutting it down, and so should you, if you know what's best for you."  Of the 4+ million refugees displaced from the Levant, we'd only taken in 1,500 and presumed to know the impacts of absorbing as many as, say, Turkey (2.2 million), Lebanon (1.2 million), or Jordan (1.4 million).  Baked into that rhetoric is a dismissal of the idea that we have a robust counter-terrorism capability, or any semblance of soft power.  Sure, we wanted to show resolve and confidence, but I believe our national strength lies in our ability to unleash complementary capabilities that few nations or power blocs can match, not some single point solution that plays to the lowest common denominator.

Now, I don’t dismiss concerns about the cost and difficulty of absorbing refugees at scale, or the security risks we expose ourselves to when taking in military-aged males.  Many of the countries taking part in refugee resettlement efforts are dealing with a highly publicized spike in crime and unemployment with young male migrants.  Some in the EU have criticized the unclear path for getting refugees off assistance programs--and it would behoove us to learn from them when crafting our strategy. However, think tanks and law enforcement have studied how to prevent attacks, and in the past few years, we’ve been successful in targeting those involved with supporting or joining conflicts abroad, and quickly defeating lone wolf attackers that make any attempt.  To turn our backs on refugees who may have nothing to do with the Syrian Civil War, or to presume we are in a position to lecture the international community about their refugee policy speaks to a lack of willingness to accept complexity or a lack of confidence in our ability to defeat any potential terrorism at home.  

Better policy recommendations will come from recognizing the levers we can pull, and figuring out what “smart power” looks like.  Discussing those finer details is exactly the national discussion we need to have.  I think Americans have learned how to navigate “hybrid threat” challenges over the past decade, but that's not how we're representing ourselves these days.

Bryan is a second year who unironically wears American flag baseball hats and mutes half of his GroupMes.