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Scapegoating refugees is not the answer

December 1, 2015
In The News

In the last two months, terrorists have blown up a Russian jet and massacred hundreds of civilians in Beirut, Paris and Mali. Americans are rightfully concerned about whether our government is doing enough to prevent an attack on our homeland. Scapegoating refugees through legislation such as the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act or riders in a government funding bill, however, is the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

As veterans who served on active duty prior to serving in Congress, we voted against the hastily drafted SAFE Act because it harms both U.S. national security and moral standing. The legislation damages national security by forcing security leadership to focus on the wrong threats.

Great military strategists from Sun Tzu to the present day all emphasize that to defeat our enemy we need to know our enemy. America’s enemies are terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda, not refugees fleeing ISIS and al Qaeda. 

There is not a single example of a refugee killing or injuring anyone on American soil by a terrorist act. In Paris, the attacks were perpetrated by French nationals and Belgians, not Syrian refugees. Should we ban travel from French citizens and Belgians to America because some of them committed terrorist acts? If that idea sounds ridiculous, then so should the idea of scapegoating children, widows and seniors fleeing Syria from seeking safety in the United States.

Of the Syrian refugees admitted to the United States last year, half are children and a quarter are senior citizens. They can only enter America after a vigorous, multi-agency vetting process that takes 18 to 24 months. The SAFE Act, however, requires the secretary of Homeland Security, the director of National Intelligence and the director of the FBI to personally certify every single Syrian and Iraqi refugee despite the robust vetting process. 

In the last year over 14,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees entered the United States. If each of the three officials spent just half an hour reviewing each file, that would be over 7,000 hours, which amounts to approximately 300 days, every year reviewing information on refugees. America will be weaker if our top security leaders are spending countless hours reviewing files on Syrian orphans and widows rather than working to defeat ISIS and al Qaeda. 

Proponents of the SAFE Act are acting in bad faith because they know the personal certification process is such an insurmountable requirement that it will largely stop the Syrian and Iraqi refugee program altogether. But even if America’s top security officials spent 30 days instead of 300 days reviewing refugee files, that is precious time taken away from mitigating actual threats.  

The SAFE Act also damages America’s moral standing. No one is happier about knee-jerk reactions than terrorists. Islamophobic hysteria is an important recruiting tool for terrorists. This is the type of overreaction they want to achieve: to use extreme violence to horrify Western society into compromising our own values.

The misguided debate over Syrian refugees has already distracted our government from focusing on real issues. For example, how do we eject ISIS from Iraq and achieve a political solution that stabilizes the country? Should the U.S. work with Russia to stabilize Syria? Are there additional tools we can give intelligence agencies that don’t violate civil liberties? Beyond answering these crucial strategic questions, any attempt by House Republicans to make blocking refugees part of the bill to fund the government would further derail Congress’s urgent work on behalf of the American people. It is bad enough that some in Congress want to focus on the wrong enemy. It is even worse to shut down the government because of this misguided vision.

We need to stop the fearmongering and legislative brinksmanship and start working together on policies that will make America safer and more prosperous.

During these times of crisis, the best angels of the American character must not be overtaken by xenophobia. America was built by people fleeing persecution in search of a better life. Closing our borders to children fleeing barrel bombs, when substantial security checks are in place, is playing into terrorists’ hands. 

As former President Reagan so eloquently stated, America is the shining city upon a hill and a beacon for all who must have freedom. Shuttering that beacon of hope is not only un-American, it harms our national security.

Lieu has represented California’s 33rd Congressional District since 2015. He sits on the Budget; and the Oversight and Government Reform committees. Gallego has represented Arizona’s 7th Congressional District since 2015. He sits on the Armed Services; and the Natural Resources committees. Both are veterans. Lieu is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force reserves and served active duty for Operation DESERT STRIKE and Operation PACIFIC HAVEN during the mid-1990's. Gallego is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, having served in Iraq.