Editorial

They're Syrian refugees, not political pawns

Next week Americans will sit around overflowing dinner tables and stuff themselves in celebration of how Native Americans greeted the Pilgrims, who came here as religious refugees from England. Think about that within the context of the current demonization of Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq.

The House on Thursday voted to suspend the federal resettlement program for refugees from that war zone over fears that Islamic State has salted the human tide — 4 million people and growing — with terrorists targeting the United States. The Senate is expected to take up the bill next month, and President Obama has rightly pledged to veto the measure if it gets to his desk.

Given that political posturing is the way House Republicans legislate these days, it would be easy to just shake our heads and move on. But nearly 50 Democrats joined them in Thursday's vote, either succumbing to fear or, worse, crassly politicizing the desperate straits of refugees. Facing that likely veto, some in the House want to embed the measure in a must-pass spending bill, setting the stage for a possible government shutdown. This misguided effort requires a forceful and unambiguous response: No.

The measure would suspend resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees until new security checks are emplaced, and would require the heads of Homeland Security, the FBI and national intelligence to vouch for each person admitted. Under the current resettlement process, potential refugees come almost exclusively through referrals from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which vets their backgrounds before deciding which country to refer them to for resettlement. Those recommended to this country are then scrubbed by U.S. security officers through interviews overseas and biometric background checks, a process that can take up to two years. The Washington Post, citing a State Department spokesman, reported that "only about a dozen" of the nearly 785,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. since the September 2011 attacks have been arrested or deported for preexisting links to terrorism. None was from Syria. Three refugees have been convicted of abetting terror attacks elsewhere.

That's hardly sufficient grounds to indict the program. It's also hard to imagine Islamic State investing more than two years of a terrorist's time trying to con refugee officials when a forged passport could gain instant access — especially since getting referred for resettlement to the U.S. is like winning a lottery. The U.N. estimates that about 10% of the 3.2 million displaced Syrians need resettling, and the Obama administration has offered to take a small fraction — up to 10,000 — in the next year. Those are pretty long odds to successfully plant a terrorist. And the measure pushed by Congress doesn't address the broader reality that the Paris attackers where overwhelmingly French citizens. Would lawmakers bar the door to European tourists as well?

Times of crisis require level heads and cool reasoning. Now would be a good time for elected leaders to begin showing some.

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 20, 2015, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Refugees, not political pawns" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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