Is Accepting or Rejecting Syrian Refugees About Us or About Them?

The Syrian refugee crisis brings to the forefront the question of American identity, who are we?

  • For people who oppose refugees coming to the United States, the focus is on who they are.
  • For people who support refugees coming to the United States, the focus is on who we are.

There are legitimate concerns about ISIS terrorists coming into the United States under the guise of being a refugee. This has been a concern for years not just with ISIS but with any criminal or terrorist group, or someone who would use our refugee system to circumvent getting in line and obtaining a visa via other legal means. This legitimate security concern was underscored on Friday, November 13, 2015 when ISIS planned multiple attacks in Paris that have killed 132 people and injured hundreds more. It would seem ISIS intentionally planned to use the refugee process to drive fear into Europe and the US to stop them from taking in refugees. If we succumb to the fear of refugees that ISIS is trying to foment, ISIS wins. If we do not succumb to the fear they are trying to create, humanity wins.

Recognizing all of the legitimate concerns about an ISIS terrorist trying to come into the US or Europe under the guise of a Syrian refugee, I believe that the US extends a helping hand to people in dire need. We have a history of this. It makes no sense to recognize that ISIS is a violent organization that seeks to kill anyone else who does not share their Salafi jihadi ideology but then to turn our backs on those fleeing from them. We have not turned away refugees in the seventy years since WWII. It is one of the things that makes us great. The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville is often quoted as having said:

America is great because she is good. When she ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

These words are truer than ever.

It is almost beyond belief that presidential candidate Jeb Bush would suggest that we should prioritize Christian refugees over Muslim refugees. Is the life of a Christian more valuable than that of a Muslim?

Help the US State Department Do Its Job

The US Department of State does an exhaustive and thorough job of vetting the refugees who come to the United States. It could be said that ISIS terrorists would probably avoid using the US refugee process to obtain entry to the US precisely because it is so intensive and takes 18-24 months, according to the US Department of State's website. Their website also states:

The Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) collect biographic and other information from the applicants to prepare for the adjudication interview and for security screening. Enhanced security screening is a joint responsibility of the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security and includes the participation of multiple U.S. Government security agencies.

Officers from the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) review all the information that the RSC has collected and also conduct an in-person interview with each refugee applicant before deciding whether to approve him or her for resettlement in the United States.

All USCIS-approved refugees undergo a health screening to identify medical needs and to ensure that those with a contagious disease, such as tuberculosis, do not enter the United States. Finally, the RSC requests a "sponsorship assurance" from a U.S.-based resettlement agency that is experienced in providing assistance to newly arrived refugees. Most refugees undergo a brief U.S. cultural orientation course prior to departure for the United States.

Those refugees who are approved by USCIS receive assistance upon arrival in the United States through the Department of State's Reception and Placement Program - a cooperative public-private program made up of a number of participants.

We need to let the US Department of State to do their job. Our Congress needs to make sure that it is not squabbling over the numbers of refugees coming into the US, which is something that the executive branch controls. Congress needs to make sure that the State Department is properly staffed, trained and they have all the resources they need so that they can properly vet refugees. This should extend beyond the State Department, and to all of the relevant divisions under the several federal agencies who partner with the State Department to make sure that refugees are properly vetted. If ISIS tries to come to the US and somehow happens to slip through the extensive vetting process, I believe that the FBI will win. The FBI has been remarkably successful at disrupting planned domestic terror attacks since September 11, 2001.

The Bigger Threat

I am less concerned about ISIS fighters posing as Syrian refugees as I am of homegrown terrorists. Several of the terrorists who attacked Paris on Friday the 13th were from Europe. It is not yet known if they became radicalized. if they became radicalized in Syria under ISIS or if they went to the Islamic State already radicalized, but there is no doubt that either the training or connections were made while joining ISIS. The bigger concern is that jihadis who seek to do harm to people in Europe or the United States are going to be harder to detect than the refugees.

100,000 more refugees?

There is also the issue of 100,000 refugees coming into the United States. The US admits 70,000 refugees each year. We have done this for years. We do this because we help people who are in need. It is who we are. It makes no sense to recognize that ISIS is a violent organization that seeks to kill Shiite and Alawite Muslims, and anyone else who does not share their Salafi jihadi ideology but then to turn our backs on them. It makes little sense to suggest, as several presidential candidates have done, to either send them back to Syria (something Donald Trump said he would do), or to send these refugees to Saudi Arabia (something that Mike Huckabee said).

Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim country that has a poor human rights record and is intolerant of religious diversity. Many of the refugees are Shiite and Alawite. Additionally, fifteen of the nineteen 9/11/2001 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the most conservative Islamic country in the world. Huckabee's plan to send refugees to Saudi Arabia creates more problems than is solves. And Donald Trump's plan is nothing more than an unenforceable sound bite.

We accept 70,000 refugees from all over the world every year and this was never an issue before. ISIS wants to create fear of refugees so that the West rejects refugees. If successful, the consequence could be what happened in Rwanda in 1994.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. He lived and worked in the Middle East and has a master's in international relations from the London School of Economics, and from the Harvard School of Government. He can be reached at