A new poll finds that a slight majority of New York registered voters, fearing terrorism, oppose allowing Syrian refugees into the United States now. That's in sharp contrast to the more principled and courageous position of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has said that rejecting refugees would be akin to "conceding defeat of the American dream."
It's also in contrast to the presumed goal of these New York voters, which is national security. New Yorkers are understandably afraid of terrorism, as the same poll also showed. But rejecting refugees from Syria, many of whom are fleeing the same terrorists we're fighting, is the wrong tack to take. Indeed, national security experts across the political spectrum say Syrian refugees not only pose less risk than anyone else who comes to the United States, but rejecting them plays right into the terrorists' strategy of stoking global conflict.
As a bipartisan group of eminent national security leaders wrote to Congress recently, rejecting Syrian refugees would undermine, rather than promote, U.S. national security.
"The process that refugees undergo in order to be deemed eligible for resettlement in the United States is robust and thorough," wrote the group, which includes such politically diverse and prominent former government officials and foreign policy experts as former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. "They are vetted more intensively than any other category of traveler," the twenty experts said, noting that applicants for refugee status in the United States are screened by national and international intelligence agencies, have their fingerprints and other biometric data checked against terrorist and criminal databases, and are interviewed repeatedly over the course of the vetting process, which is so painstaking that it can take more than two years.
What's more, "resettlement initiatives help advance U.S. national security interests by supporting the stability of our allies and partners that are struggling to host large numbers of refugees." Refugees are victims, not perpetrators, of terrorism, the group explained. "Categorically refusing to take them only feeds the narrative of ISIS that there is a war between Islam and the West, that Muslims are not welcome in the United States and Europe, and that the ISIS caliphate is their true home. We must make clear that the United States rejects this worldview by continuing to offer refuge to the world's most vulnerable people, regardless of their religion or nationality."
This latest poll sadly mirrors the attitudes of many Americans on the eve of World War II, when two-thirds of Americans opposed allowing political refugees -- mostly Jewish -- fleeing fascist Europe to come to the United States. The echoes of that history in today's anti-refugees sentiment recently prompted a group of one thousand rabbis across the country to sign a letter to Congress in support of accepting Syrian refugees here, noting that "we, as Jewish leaders, see one of the darker moments of our history repeating itself."
In a way, it's not surprising that ordinary voters are wary of accepting Syrians. After all, their view of Syrians comes mostly from mainstream media outlets, whose nonstop coverage of terrorist attacks understandably provokes fear. In the meantime, presidential primary candidates are using the terrorist threat and conflict with ISIS to whip up not only fears of terrorism but fear of foreigners generally, and Muslim immigrants in particular.
All this reflects the sorry state of American primary politics. It has no connection to sound policy.