Barring Syrian immigrants: Prudent or ‘shameful?’


Over the last day or so, we’ve seen a huge rush by Republican politicians — from presidential candidates to state legislators to governors, including our own — to bar Syrian refugees from our shores.

President Obama has termed the proposal to let in only Christian Syrian refugees “shameful.” My initial reaction yesterday was to say he was right. For me, it was the religious test more than anything else. Nothing speaks more directly to what this country is about than to respect freedom of belief and expression. Y’all know how I oppose “hate crime” laws, because I believe it’s unAmerican to punish beliefs or attitudes? It’s related to that. Punish actions, not beliefs. Bar terrorists, not Muslims.

But overall, is it “shameful” to say, hey, wait a minute on letting Syrian refugees into the country, after at least one of the Paris attackers got into Europe that way? Not necessarily. There’s an element of pragmatic self-preservation in it.

Do I think nativism and xenophobia are mixed up in it? Yes. Do I think there’s an element of We’ve got ours, so pull up the ladder behind us? (The “ours” being an element of security that Europe lacks.) Yes.

But I don’t think it’s inherently evil to take care in such a situation. Just because some unpleasant impulses are mixed up in the situation doesn’t mean it’s wrong to have second thoughts.

Most of us today condemn the practice of interning Japanese Americans during World War II. We associate it with the racism that was so common in America at the time, and yep, that was mixed up with it. But it wasn’t irrational to have a security concern about people on our shores who may have had some sense of loyalty to Japan. It was an overreaction, knowingly locking up thousands of loyal Americans in order to contain a supposed spy or two. It was going after squirrels with an elephant gun. It was an injustice — it was thousands of injustices. It was unfair. Ultimately, it was wrong.

But it wasn’t irrational. We know, for instance, of the Niihau Incident, in which a nisei couple aided a downed Japanese pilot from the Pearl Harbor attack. Humans are complicated; their loyalties not always easy to predict.

Does that excuse the internment? No, because loyal Americans were treated unjustly. It was wrong. But I don’t join with those who seem to believe it was all about racism. Were there plenty of Americans who wanted to see the Yellow Peril locked up? Sure. But that’s not all it was.

Bottom line, it’s wrong to slam the door on Syrian refugees. But while I know nativism and intolerance play a role in many people’s eagerness to do so, that’s not all that’s going on.

It’s complicated.

It’s very easy to do what partisans do: To notice that it’s Republicans calling to bar the refugees, and Democrats calling it “shameful,” and use it as another excuse to split us into two reconcilable camps — the good people over here, and the bad people over there.

In this post, I’m deliberately resisting that, doing my best to see the merits of each position. Although in the end, I’m for carefully letting refugees in, with our eyes wide open. Which appears to be what we’ve been doing.

74 thoughts on “Barring Syrian immigrants: Prudent or ‘shameful?’

  1. Mark Stewart

    This isn’t a Democrat/Republican issue. Framing it as such is divisive.

    There was nothing nuanced about the Japanese Internment. It was indefensible, racist and morally bankrupt – simple fear of others. No one locked up my German relatives at the start of WWII.

    These moments come along in history where people simply have a stark choice as to how they want to be accounted for their actions/beliefs. This is one of those times.

    Whether there are procedures to vet refugee backgrounds is secondary – and a given. The simple question before us is do we turn our backs or do we extend a hand to those who have fled the horrors we well know (leaving aside that these are partly of our own making)?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, I’m all for extending a hand. I’m just trying — perhaps too hard — not to be completely dismissive of those who urge caution.

      I’m just being particularly conciliatory today. Catch me on another day, and I might be yelling, “Shameful!”

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      My gut does yell “Shameful!” But from the moment this has come up, I’ve thought, “Posing as a refugee WOULD be awfully good cover for a terrorist.” In the end, we vet refugees carefully, but offer them refuge. We should let our hearts and our heads work together…

      1. Barry

        Well, if our heads were working, we would want our government to lead on the issue and create, with partner nations, areas – possibly in the middle east- that are safe zones out of the immediate threat area where the people would not have to leave their homes forever and travel thousands of miles to start over.

  2. Norm Ivey

    Barring Syrians is shameful. Exercising prudence with individuals is appropriate. If only we had an example from history–like a story of some young Middle Eastern family that had to flee their homeland because they feared for their lives. Would we have welcomed them?

    1. Bryan Caskey

      “If only we had an example from history–like a story of some young Middle Eastern family that had to flee their homeland because they feared for their lives.”

      Maybe you can elaborate. I’m not following you.

        1. Bryan Caskey

          Before you suggest that a Bible story commands us to take in Middle Eastern refugees becuase of Jesus’s mom and step-dad, I would ask that you consider the following:

          1. They were going home, not fleeing abroad. They were returning to Bethlehem, because Joseph was from the House of David.
          2. Their lives were not fearing for their lives. They were complying with the Imperial Capital’s (Rome) command to be counted (for tax purposes).
          3. They were a man and his pregnant wife, not a heck of a lot of men and some odd women and children.
          4. They were in a place of a bunch of other Middle-Easterners (this is implicit in #1).
          5. Last, but not least, the duties that Christ places on us are personal. They cannot be foisted on others. To-wit: DC is not being “Christian” by ordering others to accept the refugees. To Doug’s point: Obama claims to be a Christian. He’s got a big damn house. I’m sure he’s offered to take in a ton of Syrian refugees personally, right?

          Pardon me if I laugh at everyone making this bird-brain analogy as being completely uninformed of what the actual story was.

            1. Bryan Caskey

              In that instance, they returned to Israel when Herod died.

              Are we supposed to just wait around for ISIS to die a natural death? Or can we like, you know, maybe, um, assist with that?

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                You suggest an interesting twist on the story.

                What if the western hegemon at the time hadn’t been rapacious Rome, which was propping up Herod? What if it had been, say, the United States instead?

                Would we, based on Herod’s unspeakable atrocities, have dealt with him? Or would we talk about how we had “contained” him?

              2. Norm Ivey

                We should supply others with arms to destroy ISIS. We should take up arms to destroy ISIS. We should welcome their victims with open arms.

        2. Bryan Caskey

          As you can see, the reason that Bible story didn’t immediately jump to mind for me is that it’s completely different that the current situation.

          1. Barry

            It is different – but those that are interested in using it for their own purposes don’t much care that it doesn’t apply.

            It sounds right- and that’s what matters.

            1. Mark Stewart

              The Bible is the most misused and didactically contorted document in world history. The Koran is in second place.

              Lot’s of people see what they want to see…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                And of course it’s further complicated by the fact that it’s many different books written at different times by different writers for different purposes…

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Oh, it’s both. I believe it’s all divinely inspired, but yeah, written by a lot of different people at different times for (as far as the writers were concerned) different motivations.

                    We may have our reasons for doing things, but God has His.

                    Now, I don’t mean the different people had different motivations such as “if I write this and it’s a hit, I’ll get rich.” I believe they were sincerely trying to serve and explain God. But they were doing so like the blind men explaining the elephant, each of them experiencing inspiration in a different way, and for a different immediate purpose.

                    For instance, it appears to this unschooled eye (and real Bible scholars will probably laugh at my wild guesses) that Genesis and Exodus were written by people who thought it was high time to write down some of these oral traditions. The Psalms were written by poets wishing to praise God. Paul’s epistles seem to have the dual purpose of trying to coach and manage these churches he had started by remote control, and also to set out a theology for this new form of the religion. And the first three Gospels were written by people who seemed to have realized that maybe Jesus wasn’t coming back in the next five minutes or even withing their lifetimes, so they’d better write down what they knew about him for the next generation. As for the Gospel of John, there seems to be a combination of setting out a more mystical view of the Christ and also dealing with intra-church politics between the Jewish founders and Gentile converts…

                    But all address the nature of our relationship to God and each other, which is the higher purpose.

    2. Kathryn Fenner

      According to The Economist, 750,000 refugees have been resettled in the US since 9/11 and not one has been arrested for domestic terrorism. These are the victims, not the perpetrators. Several of the perpetrators in France were citizens of France or Belgium.
      Our best bet is to take them in and treat them well (which has not exactly been the case in the banlieues).

      1. Juan Caruso

        Interesting statistics you provide, KF, particularly in light of Breitbart’s recap (which includes contradictory facts that readers of even the NYT should have become familiar:

        “While many recruits from this community travel overseas to fight with terrorist organizations, some remain behind, such as “Christmas tree bomber” Mohamed Osman Mohamud, taken into custody in 2010 while hammering a button on his cellphone that he thought would detonate a truck bomb in Portand. Fortunately, his bomb was a phony, because his arms dealers were undercover FBI agents.

        The Somali refugee community in Minnesota has produced a distressing number of recruits for terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Shabaab. The Washington Times wrote earlier this year that the effort to resettle Somalis in the U.S. had the “unintended consequence of creating an enclave of immigrants with high unemployment that is both stressing the state’s safety net and creating a rich pool of potential recruiting targets for Islamist terror groups.”Another Somali who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, traveled to

        Syria for training in terrorist camps – evidently the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front – and came home eager to use his skills to attack a U.S. military base, aspiring to “kill three or four American soldiers execution-style,” according to a federal indictment.

        Only about 1,100 Somali refugees arrived in Minnesota last year. The proposed influx of Syrian migrants will be over sixty times that size, just for starters. Even in the unlikely event the incoming wave is carefully screened to keep out terrorists, the Somali example shows how alienated refugee populations provide fertile recruiting ground for extremists, and even create terrorist recruiting opportunities among native-born residents of refugee enclaves.”

        1. Doug Ross

          Surely they would have self-identified as terrorists when asked at the border “Are you a radical Islamist interested in destroying the United States?”

          1. Doug Ross

            Which goes back to my suggestion that we only accept women, children, and married men. Let the unmarried males find somewhere else.

  3. Juan Caruso

    The “Naturalization Process” for foreign immigrants has long required (Step 9) taking an Oath of Allegiance to the United States.

    The unelected U.N. and Obama administratioin have demanded that the U.S. resettle more and more “refugees” from Muslim countries. Unlike the 7-14 year naturalization process undergone by millions of immigrants including Mark Stewart’s and my families, refugees and illegal south of our border immigrants generally avoid taking the oath that offers at least some assurance that may not be inclined toward supplanting our Constitution with Sharia laws once here.

    In my opinion, it is logical for Oaths of allegiance to be a prerequisite for refugee approval and illegal immigrant amnesty considerations.

      1. Juan Caruso

        Not only might they swear a false oath for U.S. citizenship benefits, but think what mayhem they might intentionally cause as jurors in civil and criminal trials !

  4. Karen Pearson

    For me it’s a matter of faith, my faith. I read Matt: 25 vs. 35 and following, and I see my “marching orders.” I can’t speak for anyone else; they may see it otherwise. However, I’m not sure we could keep terrorists out even if we refused every refugee. Our borders are too big, our surveillance limited (as it must be in a free country), and with the internet it’s quite possible for terrorists to suborn our own citizens. We can be prudent and do background checks. We can even track people if necessary. So in summary, I think keeping refugees out is both craven and useless.

    1. Mark Stewart

      See Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols; bad people are here, there and everywhere. Furthermore, they are a very small percentage of even the criminal population.

    2. Doug Ross

      The verse says “you”, not “your government”. You. What will YOU do to assist a refugee family? Just pushing off the responsibility to everyone else is not what Jesus is

      And how about backing up a couple verses:

      “31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left”

      You think God is putting Muslims in with the sheep or the goats?

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Most of us do not live in houses large enough to take in refugees, nor would refugees want to live in our houses with us.
        We want to kick in our tax money so we can take care of many of the displaced—AND veterans, and all the other needy people. One person cannot do much, but when we all pull together, it’s amazing what can happen!

        1. Barry

          No one has to have a large house – and they don’t have to open up their own home (although that is certainly possible for some people to do for a period of time).

          But some families can certainly house or pay for housing for some families for a period of time.

          I think those screaming the loudest and looking down their noses at others should probably be first to personally step up, set the example, and offer their personal resources first to help as many as possible.

        2. Doug Ross

          Really? Is that what the Bible says? I thought it’s pretty clear about those who believe in Jesus versus those who don’t.

    3. Barry

      “For me it’s a matter of faith, my faith. ”

      Great Karen. Hopefully you will be willing to personally assist, and personally provide support, and maybe even a place for them to stay.

      1. Karen Pearson

        I am willing to contribute of course. I helped with a Somali lady and her child, and I’ll help now.

  5. Lynn Teague

    It is very unlikely that terrorists will do anything to Americans that is half as bad as what we do to ourselves.

    1. Juan Caruso

      You are either saying we did 9-11 to ourselves, or that you have a much worse example of mass homicide that WE have done to ourselves.

      Abortion is a numerically worse example of homocide, but I can assure you that WE are not all doing that.
      Viet Nam KIAs were numerically worse than all our conflicts since and our cowardly Congress never even declared any of them wars. My ancestors were not here for the U.S. Civil War. They fought in WW1 and WW2 combat.

      Will you kindly share exactly what atrocity you have in mind that WE did?

  6. susanincola

    Don’t we run a risk on the other side of the equation of creating more terrorists by refusing them entry? A helping hand in a time of need changes hearts in ways very little else can. If this is a war for hearts and minds, it seems like embracing these people is a good strategy.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      You mean to say that these refugees are teetering on the edge of the decision on whether to join ISIS? Oh, well then by all means, let’s give them a first-class ticket here.

        1. Barry

          I don’t think that’s really much of an argument.

          I know plenty of poor people that seem to have life against them. None of the ones I personally know are criminals or violate the law because life is tough.

          If a person is disposed to be a terrorist, they will likely be a terrorist.

          Our county can’t make such decisions out of pure fear. There has to be some sort of balance.

  7. susanincola

    (I don’t mean embracing known terrorists. I mean those who are in the middle of it but not now a part of it).

  8. Bryan Caskey

    Personally, I’m in favor of allowing lots of people in. I’m just in favor of doing it in a smart, thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise security. It’s not contradictory to believe these two things.

    As yet, I haven’t seen a plan for how this is going to be accomplished. Where are these people going to live? Are we just gonna drop them off in downtown Columbia and say “Go for it!” What will be the process for vetting them? What’s the plan?

    So far, I simply see this issue as something for people on each side of the political spectrum to bash each other with. It’s adorable that all my liberal friends are invoking the “What would Jesus do” argument with respect to foreign policy, when they always make fun of stupid Christians for their stupid beliefs in almost every other aspect, i.e. when it conflicts with their liberal values.

    I’m perfectly willing to concede that most refugees are no threat. Is anyone advocating for immediate refugee acceptance willing to concede that some (or any) might be?

      1. Barry

        and then there is this….

        “Several high-level administration officials have warned in recent months just how challenging this can be. While they say U.S. security measures are much better than in the past, vetting Syrian refugees poses a quandary: How do you screen people from a war-torn country that has few criminal and terrorist databases to check?”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      INS official: “If accepted into the US, would you cater for a gay wedding?”

      Refugee: “Of course not.”

      INS official: “Why NOT?”

      Refugee: “I’m not a caterer.”

      INS official: “You bigot. DENIED.”

  9. Jeff Mobley

    This is an awful situation. I think most Americans are more than willing to lend aid to refugees. But given the situation, it is quite reasonable, and indeed prudent and necessary, to pause and examine our vetting processes, rather than just declaring them “robust” and moving on without skipping a beat.

    Also, when President Obama says it would be “shameful” to screen refugees based on religion, perhaps he has a point, but the fact is that the policies of the US State Department are effectively discriminating against Christian refugees right now. As described in the articles, Syrian Christians fleeing ISIS avoid the UN refugee camps precisely because those camps are often hostile to Christians, or are even infiltrated by ISIS members. But you pretty much have to go through the UN, or the US State Department won’t deal with you. This is one reason that the best that Glenn Beck and his Nazarene fund have been able to do is to get Slovakia to agree to accept Christian refugees.

    Now, as far as how we deal with refugees generally, there are some arguments for caution that make sense to me, and some that I don’t find quite as convincing.

    1. Barry


      Thanks for pointing out Obama’s hypocrisy with Syrian Christians – a group without much of a chance at all.

  10. John

    My personal and liturgically-based religious beliefs tell me I should always welcome the poor and needy regardless of the reason they have become so. In that sense I and I suspect many of the people I go to church with would be accepting of refugees just like they work in programs to support people made homeless by unemployment or domestic violence.

    Politically I would do it for a different reason. ISIS and similar groups have persecuted and killed many more people in the Middle East than they have outside it. I am more than happy to encourage our government to take ISIS’ victims away from them, restore them to productive safe living and maybe someday they’ll go home. If they go they become friends in places we need friends. If they stay they can become productive citizens like so many refugees have before (my own ‘Old Lutheran’ ancestors came here as refugees fleeing persecution resulting from the Prussian merger of the Reformed and Lutheran churches in the 1830s).

    There is a risk from taking in refugees, certainly, but in this country there are lot of easier ways for terrorists to enter then trying to sneak in through a heavily scrutinized stream of refugees. Even with the attack in Paris the majority of attackers entered the country by other means. Denying refugees will not make us significantly safer and the long run is not good for us. My thoughts at least.

  11. Burl Burlingame

    Most of the Paris attackers were home-grown.

    And there has to be simpler ways of emplacing a terrorist in the U.S. than sneaking them in with vetted refugees. Like walking across the border.

  12. Burl Burlingame

    BTW, the Japanese Imperial Navy held off on shelling attacks on the West Coast because of fears of hitting Japanese-Americans. They felt free to do so — and did so — AFTER 9066 removed AJAs from the coast. So, ironically, 9066 had the opposite effect of what it was designed for.

    There still exists a lot of counter-propaganda on the AJA relocation. Part of the problem is that the Japanese government considered AJAs to be Japanese citizens and liable for conscription in invaded territories, which they did in other parts of the Pacific. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 Japanese-Americans served in the Imperial Army and Navy (and the Japanese high command wisely assigned most of them to the Kwantung in Manchuoko.)

    And it’s a canard that no AJAs were ever convicted of treason. Look no further than the case of Toots, Flo and Billie Shitara, a case that really should be a steamy miniseries.

  13. Bryan Caskey

    I’m just a simple caveman lawyer, but how about we focus on the reason that all these refugees are streaming out of Syria? You know, the whole civil war thing that’s going so awfully? How about we try and solve that problem and we won’t have so many people displaced.

    So far, the US strategy in Syria has produced nothing but larger and larger problems, which leads me to believe that maybe we should – get this – change strategies.

    Crazy talk, I know.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      We could, you know, decide that Assad’s day is done. Or we could have, before Russia horned in. That does complicate things.

      We’re completely capable of eliminating ISIL as an entity that holds territory — if we ever mustered and maintained the political will, which is the one great obstacle. If WE could muster the will, France would help us.

      And of course, we wouldn’t want to completely eliminate ISIL unless we had dealt with the Assad problem…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        I don’t think there’s anything that we can do to get Russia to throw Assad under the bus. They’re not going to do that. Maybe a few years ago, before Russian air power and armor flowed in, maybe we could have deposed Assad, but at this point, I think that option is gone.

        Having said that, I’m not really inclined towards deposing Assad at this time even if Russia wasn’t involved. Doing so is more or less a repeat of Iraq. If someone’s price for going into Syria is deposing Assad, then I just as soon stay out all together. However, if the plan is to go in, destroy ISIS and then leave…I’m listening.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          That’s a sensible Realpolitik position, although I confess that it’s hard for me to give up the idea of getting rid of Assad. Because what you’re saying is that we would go in and expend American blood and treasure to eliminate ISIL, then leave a tyrant in charge of the country, meaning there’s no safe place for these refugees to return to.

          But yes, direct Russian involvement makes everything 10 times harder to bring things to an attractive conclusion.

          If only there weren’t an old KGB guy in charge of Russia. He SO wants things to be like the old days, and given the Soviets’ relationship with Assad’s daddy, Putin will cling to historic support for that family.

          Plus, you know, there’s that thing of access to a warm-water port…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            You realize I just gave you my analysis of the Assad-Putin relationship as seen through a South Carolina lens. It’s the “Who’s His Daddy” principle…

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          Wait, how about this: We make a multilateral deal with Putin and our preferred rebels (and the French) that the new regime after Assad will let him have a Navy base. Think that would do it?

          Of course, we’d have to think long and hard before sanctioning such an ongoing Russian presence in the Med. But I’m just trying to think of what would appeal sufficiently to Putin’s ambitions to again be a major world power, without harming our own or our allies’ interests too much…

          1. Bryan Caskey

            I think that a Russian Naval base in Tartus would have to be to be part of any deal with the Russians. A warm-water port (that doesn’t require them to go back through the Dardanelles/Bosphorus to the Black Sea) is a big deal for the Russians.

            I think Russia also basically wants a strong-man in Syria who can keep the country orderly. Not necessarily, free, but orderly.

            1. Mark Stewart

              Back when we had this discussion after the Obama “Red Line” blunder last January, I had suggested we obliterate the unused Tartus base as a warning to both Assad and Russia. We could have gotten away with it back then. That’s off the table now.

              The game now is either i) give up and forget the place or ii) own physical territory there as Putin has done. As Bryan said, that’s another Iraq – but will likely be more so. That is the stark decision to be made at this point. Time to chose…

  14. John

    Yes…we could certainly kill a lot of people, but that’s not really the same as “winning.” I’m a bit irony-deaf, are you suggesting we go for a repeat on the Great Iraq Experiment for real or is this a joke?

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