The Real Risk Calculus on Syrian Refugees

The Real Risk Calculus on Syrian Refugees November 23, 2015

A friend of mine shared a link to my post about the Syrian refugees and our fascist impulses and a friend of theirs took issue with it, trying to argue that the risk that one of the refugees might turn out to be a terrorist is too high to accept. I left a fairly detailed answer to him, which I’ll repost here:

There is a huge difference in how refugees are vetted getting into the United States than into France or any other country of Europe. The problem in Europe is that they’ve been overwhelmed by people just flooding over the borders because they’re connected by land to Syria and Jordan. That has meant lots of people coming in that they can’t identify and temporary customs stations set up to process them, which means having to make an immediate decision on whether someone can come in (and in many cases, not being able to make such a decision at all because you don’t know they crossed in the first place). We have this thing called the Atlantic Ocean between us, which means they can’t just walk here en masse and come streaming over the border. The process for getting into the United States as a refugee takes at least 18 months and often much longer. There are multiple background checks by multiple federal agencies that must be gone through, not to mention an initial vetting by the UN. They aren’t going to get here using fake passports and IDs.

That process is why it wouldn’t even make sense for a terrorist to try to use that route to get to the United States. It takes too long. If they had the ability to get past customs in the first place (which is easier than getting through the refugee screening process), it would be infinitely easier for them to just come here on a guest visa because they wouldn’t have to wait 18 months and be face to face with FBI, State Department and DHS employees multiple times. That makes it much more likely that they’d be caught. And incidentally, part of the screening process is that the candidates who get chosen for entry are heavily weighted toward women with children, which makes it even less likely. Is there some risk? Of course. Much less than you take walking across the street every day.

In conversation with another friend, this thought occurred to me as well: I would bet a large sum of money that of those 10,000 Syrian refugees we are looking to allow in by the end of 2016, there is a significantly higher chance that one or more of them will be the victim of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant violence by a right-wing American than there is a chance that a single American will be harmed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by one of them. And I mean a lot higher, I doubt it’s even close.


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