Opinion: Barring Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks would reject America’s very roots

Syrian refugees arrive in Greece

Syrians rest after their arrival on the Greek island of Lesbos. American political backlash to the Paris terror attacks could deny such refugees a chance to seek sanctuary in the United States.

(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)

If fear-mongering politicians were sincere in their desire to shut off access to the United States by those coming from the source of the Paris terror attacks, then they would be looking not at Syria, but at Belgium and France itself. So far, five of the six attackers identified by French investigators were French, three of whom had been living in Belgium (the other two attackers remain unidentified). And yes, to bar emigration to the U.S. by Belgian and French citizens would be silly because that’s not the root of the threat. And it’s just as silly to shut the borders to war refugees.

French investigators are still trying to determine whether the Syrian passport found near one of the suicide bombers is legitimate — there’s good evidence it might be forged. Part of the Islamic State game plan is to make the West inhospitable to Muslims in hopes of driving them to seek protection in its self-declared “caliphate.” Dropping a fake Syrian passport at a terror scenes fits into that scenario. But even if the passport is legitimate and one of the attackers did sneak into Europe in the wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war zone, the solution isn’t to consign unknown thousands of refugees to a dangerous state of limbo, especially as winter descends.

It makes sense to screen potential refugees for potential threats to national security ... but it would be inhumane to bar refugees just because of their passports.

This is where fear, and unbridled political opportunism, leads us. And it’s not just the Republican presidential contenders who push this idea that rejecting Syrian refugees will somehow stymie Islamic State. About half of the nation’s governors, including at least one Democrat, have announced that they would resist federal efforts to resettle Syrian war refugees in their states, even though state political figures have no authority when it comes to federal immigration decisions.


Yes, Islamic State is a serious threat and source of terror plots either by direct action or as a catalyst providing a warped theological framework under which others act. It is its worldview that poses the threat, not the nation of origin of refugees it has helped create. It makes sense to screen potential refugees for potential threats to national security — as the government has been doing for years — but it would be inhumane to bar refugees just because of their passports.

We have a history of this sort of thing. When the nation feels threatened, it convulses in fear and throttles back the very freedoms that make the U.S. a world leader. For a nation built by immigrants and their offspring, including waves of refugees over the years, to say, “wait a minute, not THOSE people,” is to reject our very roots. Not to mention hamstring future economic growth, since immigrants help fuel the economy.

But there are more basic humanitarian reasons to not slam the door on Syrian refugees. These are people in dire need of sanctuary, whose country has been largely leveled by a war few of them had anything to do with. It is a place to which many of them will not be able to return. That is a humanitarian crisis, and if the U.S. conceives of itself as a global moral leader, it can’t succumb to fear — real or manufactured — and deny them hope.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.


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