IN THE face of the most calamitous refugee crisis since World War II, the United States has finally begun granting refuge to displaced Syrians on a pace that, while still unequal to the problem’s scale and the United States’ capacity, at least starts to acknowledge that a crisis exists.
In an announcement Monday, the White House said the administration had met its goal of granting asylum to 10,000 Syrians in the current fiscal year, which ends in a month. Officials said they expect to continue accepting asylum applications in coming weeks and months.
The modesty of the numerical goal is incommensurate with the weight of the challenge posed by some 5 million Syrian refugees, including roughly 1.1 million already in Europe. Measured against resettlement programs on behalf of refugees by Germany, France, Britain and other Western countries, to say nothing of those by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, America’s own efforts are meager. Canada, with a population barely a tenth the size of the United States’, has resettled three times more Syrian refugees since last fall. And Washington’s goal for the next fiscal year, starting Oct. 1, is no greater than its goal for the current year.
National security adviser Susan Rice heralded the arrival of the 10,000th refugee by releasing a statement lauding the “important message” President Obama had sent. Given the craven resistance to any resettlement, especially among some Republican governors, the self-congratulation was understandable. Yet the United States could do much more.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were resettled in this country after the war there. More than 120,000 Cubans came to the United States in the course of a few months during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. As former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley has noted, if the United States, a country of 320 million, granted asylum to 65,000 Syrians, it would be statistically akin to adding 6½ people to a baseball stadium holding 32,000. And notwithstanding grandstanding politicians who depict the refugees as a grave threat, many of those who have been resettled, in towns and smaller cities in nearly 40 states, say they have been treated well by their new American neighbors.
The political headwinds have more to do with xenophobia, especially regarding the Middle East and Muslims, and a generalized fear of terrorist attacks, than with any specific or real threat posed by Syrian refugees.
While most Syrian refugees resettled in the past year are children and women, it is impossible to assure that none of them, and none of the 75,000 refugees accepted from around the world, may pose a security threat, now or in the future. Still, Syrian asylum-seekers have been subjected to intensive and enhanced security vetting, including face-to-face interviews by U.S. officials, scrutiny of social media accounts and other screening measures.
Previous waves of immigrants and refugees — Irish, Italians, Jews and Vietnamese — have been despised, feared and shunned by some Americans, much as Syrians are being vilified by some Americans now. Yet like their predecessors, Syrians, joining 150,000 of their countrymen already in the United States, will make new and productive lives that ultimately add to America’s unique dynamism.