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Rescuing Refugees

Many Americans believe that we are extraordinarily open in welcoming "the needy and oppressed." But the refugee crisis in Syria, followed by the attacks in Paris and California, has brought out the worst in some people. It's time for another private sector initiative to help solve the refugee crisis.
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Syrian refugees cross into Jordan, at the Hadalat border crossing, east of the Jordanian capital Amman, on January 14, 2016, after being stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders. The number of Syrian refugees stuck on the border with Jordan has climbed from 12,000 to nearly 16,000 since December, the kingdom's government spokesman said on January 11. / AFP / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian refugees cross into Jordan, at the Hadalat border crossing, east of the Jordanian capital Amman, on January 14, 2016, after being stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders. The number of Syrian refugees stuck on the border with Jordan has climbed from 12,000 to nearly 16,000 since December, the kingdom's government spokesman said on January 11. / AFP / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

Many Americans believe that we are extraordinarily open in welcoming "the needy and oppressed." But the refugee crisis in Syria, followed by the attacks in Paris and California, has brought out the worst in some people. They want to close the doors to these refugees, even if doing so means death for them. How do they justify this stand? By using, among other means, age-old psychological tricks:

1. Pretending that these refugees "hate us and want to destroy our Western civilization" thus equating the people fleeing from the haters with the haters.

2. Evading the fact that we Americans have a special responsibility for helping the refugees, since the U.S. government's invasion of Iraq is a major cause of the refugee crisis.

3. Using clever analogies to dehumanize the refugees. For example, the meme circulating on the internet: "If 10 percent of M&Ms were poisoned, would you risk having one?" Immediately this suggests, falsely, that:

-- 10 percent of refugees are terrorists.

-- Turning away genuine refugees is like throwing out unpoisoned M&Ms -- a sensible precaution.

-- Refugees have no more moral standing than M&Ms.

The point is not that people lose awareness of the fact that the refugees are human beings and not candy. Rather, this awareness and its significance are clouded over with an impression of danger, of poisoned candy people.

This makes it easy to evade the fact that turning away refugees is like kicking drowning people back into the lake as they struggle to save themselves -- infinitely worse than simply refusing to save a drowning person.

But don't we have a right to protect ourselves from potential murderers? Certainly, but what makes the refugees potential murderers? If we make the all-important distinction between refugees on the one hand, and asylum seekers and other migrants on the other, we find that only three of 859,629 refugees admitted to the United States since 2001 have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks -- all of them on targets abroad and none successfully. One reason for the low number is that refugees, especially now Syrian refugees, are vetted extremely carefully, over a period of two to three years, before being admitted into the United States. Only the dumbest terrorist would try to come here as a refugee.

Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous to leave it at that. For even if we don't need to fear refugees, might we not have reason to fear their children -- even children born and raised here? Since 9/11, American courts have prosecuted 508 defendants, mostly Muslim, for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks on civilians.

But a little digging undermines this scary picture of Muslims. In The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism, Trevor Aaronson documents that many of these 508 defendants were mentally disturbed or impoverished people who were induced by the FBI's informants or undercover agents to participate in terrorist plots created by the FBI. These informants were often themselves criminals or underachievers who agreed to create terrorists in exchange for lighter sentences and money. Since 9/11 there have been only seven terrorist attacks in the United States, and several failed attacks. Aaronson's claims have never been challenged by the FBI.

The fear of immigrants, however, also has a cultural source. The worry is that a large influx of Muslims would make our culture more intolerant. But only a small minority of American Muslims is likely to want an intolerant political culture, since such a culture could easily be turned against them. Nor are they likely to find political allies to help them. Moreover, the social and religious outlook of American Muslims is closer to that of other Americans than to non-American Muslims. So either Muslims who come to America are more tolerant than most Muslims worldwide, or they become more tolerant after they have been enculturated, or some of both.

A last argument against admitting refugees is advanced on allegedly moral grounds. Mark Krikorian argues that it's wrong to admit refugees here instead of helping them to resettle in Middle Eastern camps, because for the cost of resettling a refugee here over a five-year period, we can resettle 12 in Middle Eastern camps.

Unfortunately, life in the camps is dangerous. Moreover, camps are excellent places for recruiting new terrorists. By contrast, refugees resettled here will soon start working and contributing to the economy. And thousands of Americans are willing to spend their own money to resettle them, just as they did in the 1980s and '90s, under President Reagan's Private Sector Initiative.

In short, there is no good reason to keep refugees out, and many good reasons to welcome them. It's time for another private sector initiative to help solve the refugee crisis.

Neera K. Badhwar is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and a Senior Fellow with the Philosophy, Politics, & Economics Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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