Of the 4.2 million Syrians displaced since that country’s civil war began in 2011, America has taken in 2,290—or 0.0005 percent of the total. But to hear many American politicians speak in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, Syrian refugees pose an immense security threat. So far, all they’ve brought about is a serious identity crisis for the U.S. These five facts explain America’s reaction to Syrian refugees.
Some 31 U.S. governors—all but one Republican—have announced that Syrian refugees would not be welcome in their states. Given the press coverage, you would think that individual states have a say in U.S. refugee policy—they don’t. Once refugees are admitted into the U.S. by the federal government, they are free to settle wherever they choose. So far in 2015, the lion’s share of the 1,869 Syrian refugees admitted have settled in six states—California (218 refugees), Michigan (198), Texas (194), Illinois (136), Arizona (153) and Pennsylvania (138). Of these states, only California and Pennsylvania—both with Democratic governors—continue to “welcome” Syrian refugees.
Among the politicians who have come out against Syrian refugees is GOP hopeful and Ohio Governor John Kasich. His own state offers a counterexample. In 2012, local refugee services in Cleveland spent about $4.8 million to help refugees get settled in the area. In turn, these refugees had a positive impact on the economy worth about $48 million, a ten-fold return on investment. Refugees, when given the proper support, can be a boon to local economies.
2. Presidential Candidates
Over the last four decades, the U.S. has admitted nearly 3 million refugees. You wouldn’t know it from the way presidential candidates are talking. Texas Senator Ted Cruz plans to introduce legislation that would ban Muslim Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. If there is any presidential candidate who should appreciate the plight of refugees, it’s Cruz, whose father fled Castro’s regime in Cuba in the 1950s. Ben Carson has used a particularly offensive analogy to rabid dogs when explaining why he is against letting in Syrian refugees. Donald Trump has pushed for increased surveillance of “certain mosques” and a specialized Muslim database to track their activities. Of the 12 GOP candidates actually polling (sorry Jim Gilmore), 7 have come out against Syrian refugees outright, 3 want to “pause” their admission, and Jeb Bush and Cruz make special allowances for Christian Syrians. How Christian of them.
Democratic candidates have avoided the same colorful rhetoric, but their proposals don’t move the needle much more. Bernie Sanders is content supporting Obama’s 10,000 Syrian refugee policy. Both Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have called for an additional 65,000 Syrian refugees to be accepted over the next five years. That’s a paltry sum compared to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees currently fleeing to Europe.
In September, President Obama proposed allowing an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees to come to the U.S. over the next year. The White House has the authority to unilaterally determine how many refugees can be admitted into the U.S., but it is up to Congress to fund the resettlements. In the 2014 fiscal year, it cost $1.1 billion to resettle and train 70,000 refugees, or roughly $15,700 per refugee.
Congress is having none of it. The House last week voted 289-137 to pass a bill requiring the FBI director, the secretary of homeland security and the director of national intelligence to all certify that each individual refugee poses no security risk to the U.S. In the name of increased security, the House is aiming to slow Syrian refugee intake to a crawl. The vote was bipartisan, with 47 Democrats joining 242 Republicans in voting for the bill, giving the legislation a veto-proof majority if those numbers hold. The U.S. has been the largest contributor of aid to Syria since 2011, sending more than $4 billion to date in humanitarian aid. But as events this year have shown, simply throwing money at Syria is not going to help solve the humanitarian crisis.
4. The American Public
In a Gallup poll conducted this past summer, 63 percent of Americans said that immigration is a “good thing” for the country overall. But a Bloomberg Politics poll last week, conducted in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, found that 53 percent of Americans don’t want to accept any Syrian refugees; 11 percent said they would only accept Christian refugees from Syria. Unfortunately, this is well in line with America’s history with refugees. In 1948, a Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans would disapprove of resettling 10,000 displaced Europeans in their state. In 1975, only 36 percent of Americans wanted to take in Vietnamese refugees; in 1980, 71 percent of Americans were against Cuban refugees coming to the U.S. Some habits die hard.
5. Other Countries
Over the last four years, the Turkish government has spent roughly $5.72 billion to feed and shelter Syrian refugees, who number 2.2 million in the country. Despite the apparent economic burden, the Turkish economy is expected to grow 3 percent this year. Smaller Lebanon, which is currently housing 1.1 million refugees, will see an economic growth rate of 2 percent. Jordan has taken in 630,000 Syrian refugees—more than 10 percent of its own population—and is also expected to see its GDP rise 3 percent this year. Sometimes, doing the right thing pays off.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed that it’s possible to win elections by promising to do more, not less, to help Syrian refugees. During his campaign, he pledged to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. As prime minister, he now has six weeks left to follow through. Meanwhile, France repeated its promises to take in 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years, a statement of defiance after the Paris attacks. It’s a message America should listen to.