The Syrian Refugee Dilemma

There is no denying that refugees from the war, disorder and lawlessness in the Middle East present a practical and humanitarian crisis. It is in our best interest to aid in resolving this crisis, and to do so beyond simply exhorting those in the region to help. But stepping up by accepting large numbers of refugees to our shores presents a genuine dilemma.

First, let us agree that both sides of this issue obfuscate reality. There is little doubt that considerable effort and time will go into vetting candidates for immigration. This will go far beyond typical actions by other countries. But none involved could reasonably claim that it would be perfect. Circumstances in the region preclude effective investigation, and it would not be hard for those intent on harming us from obtaining sufficient documentation and affidavits. The modern technical skills shown by ISIS and the proven reluctance of family and associates to provide warnings are both major risk factors in avoiding a mistake. And it takes but one or two mistakes to lead to events here comparable to those in Paris a few days ago.

So the issue basically comes down to the question of acceptable risk. The administration is confident that this risk is small in the context of our national interest in resolving the crisis. However it is unclear how this trade-off was reached. One cannot help but wonder if they would reach the same decision if it involved personal risk. For example, would President Obama be willing the accept one chance in a hundred that Malia or Sasha would get blown up by a suicide bomber? One chance in thousand? Obviously we don’t know the real odds, but I suspect that very few parents would accept either risk, notwithstanding humanitarian impulses.

We are a compassionate people. Suffering anywhere in the world always brings out the best in us. But political executives, like the President and our state Governors, have one overriding obligation. They must always put first and foremost the well-being and safety of those they serve. Many Governors, and not just Republicans, have expressed this obligation forcefully by rejecting Syrian refugees without assurances that risk has been effectively eliminated.

syrian-refugees-postWhether this has any legal effect is unclear, given the supremacy of federal law, but surely it should influence a thoughtful President.