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Why Are Republicans So Scared of Syrian Refugees?

As the Syrian crisis worsens, conservatives are escalating alarmism over the US government's efforts to resettle larger numbers of displaced refugees.

by Meredith Hoffman
Jul 13 2015, 2:14pm

Displaced Syrians at a refugee camp in northern Iraq. Photo by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation via Flickr

Superimposed upon the cartoonish image of a lush neon pasture, Ann Corcoran stares through horn-rimmed glasses at her YouTube audience. The white-haired right-wing blogger is unruffled, almost grandmotherly, as she warns about a dark and insidious threat: Muslim refugees.

"I've become increasingly alarmed by the percentage of problematic Muslim refugees distributed around the US," Corcoran informs viewers. "Many are forming cities within cities...where mosques are being built to consolidate, train, and promote a growing American Muslim population and its Islamic supremacist doctrine called Sharia."

Corcoran, who runs the inflammatory anti-refugee blog Refugee Resettlement Watch, goes on to give a conspiracy-laden account of how the US government (with the help of the United Nations and shadowy Islamic charities, of course) takes in refugees from predominantly Muslim countries, and secretly "seeds" them in unsuspecting American communities.

The threat, she warns, is only getting worse: "Soon we will be settling Syrian Muslims in large numbers," Corcoran says. "If you don't help counter [this], we are, in my opinion, doomed. Over time this migration will be more devastating to your children and grandchildren than any terrorist attack could ever be."

The video—which has been viewed more than 700,000 times since it was first posted in April—stirred up familiar strains of Islamophobia around the right-wing blogosphere, igniting a wave of alarm over Muslim refugees, in particular Syrians who have fled country's five-year civil war. Both politicians and anti-refugee activists have loudly fought efforts to resettle Syrians in the US, amounting to what analysts say is the most vocal and active opposition to a refugee group in years.

Meanwhile, more than 4 million people have now fled the conflict the conflict in Syria, the United Nations Refugee Agency announced last week, making it the single worst refugee crisis in almost 25 years. So far, the US has taken in just a 1,000 of those refugees, but international pressure is mounting for developed nations to do more to address the crisis.

In Congress, Republicans have adamantly resisted Syrian resettlement efforts, arguing that the government is unable to properly screen the new arrivals for signs of radicalization. After the US State Department indicated last December that it expected the number of Syrian admissions to "surge in 2015 and beyond," Republican Congressman Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and New York Republican Congressman Peter King sent a letter to White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice demanding details on the administration's plans, and warning that the refugee program could be used by terrorists looking to gain entry into the US.

"We are concerned about the possibility of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) exploiting the refugee resettlement process to set up operatives in the West," they wrote, adding "we want to make sure the Syrian refugee program does not become a back door for jihadists."

Since then, McCaul has repeated these concerns with heightened fervor, calling two hearings to assess the security of the refugee program, and penning a second letter to President Barack Obama last month to express his disappointment with the administration's efforts to address the potential refugee threats.

"We cannot be naive. Some of these fanatics want to turn our refugee programs into a Trojan horse to carry out attacks here at home," McCaul warned at a June hearing. "We cannot allow that to happen, and I hope the White House will do more to convince Congress and the American people that it is moving cautiously, appropriately, but most importantly, with the security of the American people as a priority."

South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy expressed similar concerns, writing a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry in April to demand details about each of the Syrian refugees that had been resettled in his home state. "I am deeply concerned about the lack of notice, information, and consultation afforded to me and my constituents about this issue," Gowdy wrote, demanding that any additional resettlements be put on hold until his office received the information.

Around the country, conservative activists have started taking steps to prevent refugee resettlements in their communities. In Idaho, a new group formed last month to demand that the College of Southern Idaho close its refugee center, after the school announced that it would welcome up to 300 Syrian refugees this fall. According to Reuters, the Committee to End the CSI Refugee Center is planning a door-knocking campaign in Twin Falls this month to mobilize the community against the center, highlighting concerns that the refugees did not receive proper screening by the US government.

This distrust of Syrian entries represents a significant escalation in American resistance to refugees, said Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, a Jewish resettlement agency in the US. "Before September 11 refugees were regarded like mom and apple pie—they were a bipartisan issue," Hetfield told me of the broad support. "But 9/11 made people much more fearful of the Middle East and stoked Islamophobia."

Related: Syria After Four Years—A Timeline of the Conflict

But while Americans were generally receptive to refugees from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the same has not been true for the more recent resettlements. "There's not a sense of American responsibility for what's going on in Syria at the moment," Hetfield said. "And Americans are developing compassion fatigue—the Middle East is falling to pieces right now and it's becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to feel they should participate in resolving that crisis."

"People are confusing refugees who are fleeing Islamic terror in the Middle East with the people who are perpetuating the terror," he added. "But most victims of Islamic terror are actually Muslim and that's what they're fleeing right now."

Security analysts disagree on whether the Syrian refugee program could actually pose a terrorism risk. At a February House Homeland Security Committee hearing, Michael Steinbach, the FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism, questioned whether the US had the ability to collect adequate intelligence to screen new Syrian entries, noting the lack of on-the-ground intelligence collection in the war-torn country.

"You are talking about a country that is a failed state, that does not have any infrastructure so to speak," Steinbach told the congressional panel. "So all the data sets, the police, the intel services, that you would normally go to and seek that information, don't exist."

Meanwhile Seth Jones, a policy analyst with the RAND Corporation, testified last month that while the government has the ability to vet Syrians, it should consider enhancing its background and security checks. Jones cited an infamous 2009 case, in which two Iraqi terrorists with bomb-making expertise were arrested in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 2009, after the US Department of Homeland Security missed critical information about the men in their background checks. But, Jones noted, that incident "led to numerous changes in how the US processed and accepted refugees."

Other analysts insist that the refugee program would be the hardest way for a potential terrorist to enter the US. "It's a very rigorous vetting process and they'd have to pass through multiple databases including the FBI database, Department of Homeland Security database and Department of Defense database," said Donald Kerwin, the executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, who authored a 2012 report on refugee screening process.

"These data sets are very broad and very extensive, with millions and millions of names," he said, adding that the data scoured includes biometrics, known associates, immigration history, and social media records."Terrorists would certainly try to infiltrate in other ways."

Since the Syrian resettlement program began in 2014, the US has placed 1,003 refugees, and the plans to accept between 1,0000 and 2,000 in the 2015 fiscal year, said Simon Henshaw, a spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Migration and Refugees. For Syrians, he said, the resettlement process can take 18 to 24 months because of security screenings, which include background checks, interviews, and intelligence gathering by both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

"We believe refugees are the most heavily screened population that enters the US," Henshaw said. He noted that most Syrian refugees enter the US as families, and that vulnerable individuals—particularly victims of torture or gender-based violence, medical cases, and female-led households—receive priority.

A total of 14,000 applications are currently being processed, Henshaw said, but added that applications will likely move more quickly in the future. "We've been getting referrals for a little over a year now but we have a very slow process," he said. "We have to build up resources and get people on the ground."

Still, refugee advocacy groups say the US has done shamefully little to ameliorate the Syrian crisis. As the conflict drags on, the overwhelming majority of displaced Syrians have been crammed into neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Meanwhile, fewer than 200,000 Syrians have been settled in the US and Europe.

"We could definitely do more than we're doing," said Lavinia Limon, president of the US Committee for Refugees. She noted that while the US currently takes 70,000 refugees annually, the president actually has authority to increase that number in the event of a crisis.

"When we're not making a concerted effort to alleviate the issues of the countries around the region, we're basically telling the world we don't care," Limon said. "Do you want to live in a world where children are being killed every day? It's a pretty horrible world when that happens."

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Politics
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