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October 20, 2007

Refugees and Terrorists
Posted by David Shorr

Thought I'd pass along a recent exchange with a fellow Iowan at a local discussion on refugees. The event focused on the excellent documentary on the internationally renowned Refugee All Stars reggae band from Sierra Leone and two refugees from Liberia who live in Muscatine (I was, as noted in the local press coverage, the requisite 'scholar' needed to receive grant support).

While the Liberians talked about the vital support they have received from local churches and the community, I highlighted the fact that fewer and fewer refugees are being admitted to the United States (a table with the #s, courtesy of the Migration Policy Institute, is in the second part of this post). Since a refugee is someone who, having lost basic rights and protection in her own country, counts on other nations, the US is falling down on an essential responsibility. The failure is most glaring in the case of Iraqis who have worked with US forces; these people are in mortal danger as a direct result of having helped our troops. And yet, we can't seem to get organized to get them out of this vulnerable position and resettle them to the US.

You may already know what this has to do with terrorists. Part of the bureaucratic hold-up to process people for resettlement, yet only part, is the effort to screen out terrorists. Now to the exchange I had after the discussion in Muscatine. One of the participants called me to account for neglecting to mention 9/11 as a factor.

I admitted that I had failed to make the connection on purpose. When the discussion participant said US authorities are "making sure" no terrorists are among those resettled, he had half-made my own point for me. Such efforts to make absolutely certain are part of a hyper-vigilant pursuit of risk-elimination and perfect security that doesn't take any other considerations into account.

This person saw my point, though I don't know whether he was convinced. Even so, these are the tensions we should point toward. This will be one of the tests of a foreign policy that isn't consumed by the problem of terrorism. If we are concerned about America doing its share in the world community -- and we should be worried whether the deterioration of a world community leading to much more chaos -- these are the issues. (Oh, and by the way, if I were a terrorist, coming to the US as a refugee is the last way I would do it; that route draws way too much scrutiny.)

There are also selfish reasons to keep America from being a fortress. I'll tell you one 'arms race' that I worry about: foreign students. I know that in Canada and Australia, there are deans of international students at universities who are salivating over the obstacles America puts up toward students. I don't want the world's best and brightest to study in Canada; I want them here.

David Foster Wallace takes this issue on even more boldly in the new American Idea issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

The refugee numbers follow:

Total number of refugees admitted compared
to total ceilings with accumulated shortfall, 1991-2003
Total Admitted Total ceiling Short-fall Shortfall (cumulative)
1991 112,811 131,000 18,189 18,189
1992 132,173 142,000 9,827 28,016
1993 119,482 132,000 12,518 40,534
1994 112,682 121,000 8,318 48,852
1995 99,490 112,000 12,510 61,362
1996 75,693 90,000 14,307 75,669
1997 70,085 78,000 7,915 83,584
1998 76,554 83,000 6,446 90,030
1999 85,006 91,000 5,994 96,024
2000 72,515 90,000 17,485 113,509
2001 68,426 80,000 11,574 125,083
2002 27,110 70,000 42,971 168,054
2003 28,455 70,000 41,545 209,599
Source: US Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration


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We ought to be aware of how easily separate issues get conflated in discussions about refugees and scrutiny of foreign visitors to the United States generally.

One issue involves Iraqis now at risk because of work they have done for American forces, agencies and media in Iraq. Another involves the much larger number of Iraqis who have fled to neighboring countries (primarily Jordan and Syria) or are internally displaced, and how many of them should be admitted to the United States. A third involves American aid to countries now burdened with large numbers of refugees from Iraq. A fourth (as mentioned here) involves immigration restrictions and security provisions now being applied to all manner of visitors to this country, including students and even tourists from countries unassociated with terrorism of any kind. Finally, (as not mentioned here) we should consider the impact of the ongoing controversy over immigration in general on how Americans are likely to view the idea of admitting large numbers of refugees Iraq and other areas of conflict.

As Amb. Crocker pointed out in a leaked memo not long ago, the process of addressing the first problem in this list has moved at a glacial pace. The United States has very good reason to avoid being seen as abandoning its friends in Iraq, but current policy toward Iraqis in jeopardy because they have worked with Americans is leaving precisely this impression. Having said that, my idea of extricating America from the Iraq quagmire does not include bringing back to the United States any more of that quagmire than we have to. Would tens of thousands of refugees who have not worked for coalition forces or American media amount to "more than we have to" in the mind of the American public? You tell me.

The broader point about not letting policy in this and other areas become consumed by the fear of terrorism is quite sound. We still have to address the question of what kind of people, and how many of them, we want to admit to the United States.

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