Vetting Trump’s Vetting of Refugees

By Wendy Pearlman, Northwestern University

*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 24: New Challenges to Public and Policy Engagement, available as an open-access PDF here It is also part of POMEPS Studies 25 is a collection of their memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

On January 27, President Trump signed an Executive Order banning citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria for 90 days, stopping all refugee resettlement for four months, and barring all Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Though the policy is being severely challenged in the courts, the White House’s elevation of a politicized, securitized discourse on refugee questions should remain an issue of deep concern for those of us who study the Middle East. Our work brings us into contact with refugees – defined as persons who have been forced to flee their countries due to war, violence, or persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group – in many ways. We document and analyze the conditions that produce refugees and trace the effects of population flows on the political, economic, and social geography of the countries we study. We also investigate refugees as subjects in their own right: interviewing and surveying them, mapping their dispersion, and measuring their behavior, organization, attitudes, and identities. When conditions make it difficult for us to get to particular areas, we often turn to refugees, as well as migrants and exiles, as vital sources of information and insight about conditions there.

Given the extent to which refugees figure into our work directly or indirectly, the Middle East studies community should take hostility to Middle East refugees as a challenge its own mission to promote understanding of the region and it peoples. In what follows, I sketch four ways in which we can meet this challenge by contesting some of the key ideas justifying the new policy.

  1. Extreme what, exactly?

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly said that the U.S. government had little information about the Syrian refugees it accepted and, on that basis, proposed a new program of “extreme vetting.” He made this point forcefully in the wake of the June 2016 Orlando shooting, drawing a link between refugees and a mass murder perpetrated by an American killer. “We don’t know who they are,” Trump said about Syrian refugees. “They have no documentation, and we don’t know what they’re planning.”

Middle East scholars can add our voices to the chorus of those contesting such statements. The United States only considers Syrians for asylum after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) registers them, interviews them, grants them refugee status, and chooses to refer them to the U.S. – a decision typically reserved for only the most vulnerable one percent of refugees across the globe. Refugee applicants are then reviewed by the State Department, which conducts two to three background checks and matches their photos and fingerprints to biometric security databases. Syrians then undergo one or two layers of review by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, a thorough interview with the Department of Homeland Security, a medical screening, and a cultural orientation class. Only then are they matched with an American resettlement agency, after which they undergo other security checks before leaving for the U.S. and upon arriving in the U.S. The entire process usually takes up to years.

Refugee experts point out that this screening process is already one of the most exhaustive in the world. It is difficult to imagine how it could be made more effective in catching potential security threats. We must be vigilant in pressing the question: is this really what the proposed new vetting even seeks to do? Or is it instead a guise for religious profiling, ideological testing, or other forms of discrimination? 

  1. Don’t blame the victim

Apart from misrepresenting the vetting process, then President-elect Trump accused Syrian refugees of links to terrorism, declaring that they are “definitely in many cases, ISIS-aligned.” We have a role to play in making sure such unjust accusations do not crystalize as an acceptable narrative and can do so by hammering home, at every opportunity, two points. First, Syrian refugees are fleeing the terror of state violence, war, persecution, and extremists like ISIS. Who will oppose terror more than those who have suffered from it? Second, the historical record shows that no refugee has ever carried out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Rather, acts of terrorism in this country are far more likely to be committed by native-born citizens than newcomers. Data collected by the New America Foundation counted only 12 refugees among the 546 extremists in the United States charged with terrorism since 9/11. This rendered refugees just two percent of the total, as opposed to the 63 percent who were U.S.-born. The Migration Policy Institute examined the cases of 784,000 refugees resettled in the United States since 9/11. Only three were arrested for plotting terrorist activities, all of which concerned sending money and weapons overseas. The only connection to potential terror here at home came from one Uzbek refugee, who made unsubstantiated boasts about such attacks. 

  1. Keep perspective

As a candidate, Trump called “to stop the tremendous flow of Syrian refugees into the United States,” citing their numbers as reaching the “tens of thousands.” Here, we also must set the record straight. From the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 through the end of 2016, the United States resettled 18,007 Syrian refugees (nearly 90 percent of them since October 2015). This amounts to about 0.3 percent of the 5,747,239 Syrian refugees that the UNHCR reports are currently being hosted by states in the Middle East and Europe. As of this writing, there are 2,814,631 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, 1,017,433 in Lebanon, 655,399 in Jordan, 230,836 in Iraq, 115,204 in Egypt, and 29,275 elsewhere in North Africa, in addition to 884,461 seeking asylum in Europe, most in Germany and Sweden. These tallies include neither the unknown numbers of refugees who are unregistered, nor the 7.6 million Syrians believed to be internally displaced.

No conversation about America’s admission of Syrian refugees should pass without attention to the staggering burden being born by far less wealthy countries, and how light the U.S. share is in comparison. Those of us who know Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan can also communicate the magnitude of the crisis for these host states, given their own domestic political fissures, economic troubles, deficient public infrastructure, or scarcity of basic resources such as water. We can describe how Syrians in these countries languish in legal limbo, vulnerable to exploitation and impoverishment, and how half of the 1.5 million Syrian children are not in school. Of course, many Middle Eastern refugees who risk their lives to smuggle themselves to Europe also continue to suffer, as the asylum seekers who froze to death in early January remind us.

We can work to make these facts, figures, and stories a part of any discussion about admission of Syrian refugees to the United States. And then we can pose the question: can and should this country do more?

  1. Amplify refugee’s voices

Nothing can create empathy for refugees’ plights and basic humanity, more than listening to them tell their own stories. Most Americans have never met a refugee from the Middle East. As people who know the region, speak its languages, or maintain connections to its diasporic communities, we can play a role in bridging this gap. We can invite – into our classrooms, civic groups, or congregations – people from the Middle East, be they those who have fled persecution or those who can testify why others are forced to do so. We can recommend and share any of the stunning plethora of phenomenal written, audio, and visual works in which individuals from the region bring to life the circumstances that force people from their homes and the soul-gutting challenge of starting life anew. We can incorporate these voices into our own writing, teaching, and public speaking, passing them along to the audiences that our work tries to reach. My forthcoming book, for example, undertakes to tell the story of Syria’s uprising and war exclusively through the words of the displaced persons I have interviewed during the past four years. In these and many other ways, we can take advantage of our unique positioning to make sure that conversations about refugees actually include refugees.

Public discourse and policy-making that maligns the most vulnerable individuals and families of the Middle East is a challenge to our work generating both knowledge about and empathy for the region. Yet as vital as is our duty to advocate for and protect refugees, these remain humanitarian bandages on fundamentally political wounds. We who study those wounds can also continue to make publicly accessible what we know about the causes of war, authoritarianism, human rights abuse, and state failure in the region, including the role of the United States in creating these conditions. Promoting a deeper understanding of the region is necessary to make the refugee crisis comprehensible to ordinary Americans. And this is necessary to lay bare our moral responsibility to ordinary Middle Easterners who seek the freedom and dignity that we are lucky enough to take for granted.

Wendy Pearlman is the Martin and Patricia Koldyke Outstanding Teaching Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. Her book, We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria, will be published by HarperCollins in June 2017.