Washington’s Wave of Anti-Refugee Hysteria Is Missing Something: Facts

November 20, 2015

In times of fear, men and women of reason have a responsibility to speak about facts.

I understand fear. I narrowly escaped a terrorist bomb in Colombia as a young man. Fear can make you do things you regret when you learn the facts. And in the United States now, fact-checking has been replaced by fear-mongering, hard evidence by hysteria.

The US House of Representatives yesterday voted to effectively block the United States from taking in refugees from Iraq and Syria. A US senator is pushing a bill to ban refugees from 34 countries, from Indonesia to Turkey. Most US state governors have promised to reject all Syrian refugees, including women, orphaned children, and the gravely wounded. They rationalize these acts by referring to unconnected events in Paris last Friday.

Not one of these politicians has any evidence that the Paris attacks were connected to any refugee. A Syrian passport that was placed near one of the attacks is now known to be fake, purchased from a counterfeiter. It is hypothetically possible that one of the attackers may later turn out to have been a refugee, but no politician now rushing to retaliate against refugees has evidence of that.

And even if a refugee were somehow connected to the Paris attacks, that would not justify trapping tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children in a horrific war zone. That is the moral and logical equivalent of locking up all white American men due to the actions of white American terrorist Dylann Roof. As a white American male, I have the same connection to Dylann Roof as essentially all refugees have to the actions of the twisted murderers in Paris: no connection at all.

People of reason must remember three facts.

  • Scholars have studied immigrants for decades and have found no statistical connection between immigration and crime in general, or violent crime in particular. There is no evidence that refugees are any different. You are at least as much at risk from your current neighbor as you are from any resettled refugee. The United States already extensively vets asylum applicants for links to terrorism, as it should.
  • Of the 859,629 refugees that the United States has welcomed since 2001, three have been convicted for planning terror attacks overseas. Zero have been convicted for involvement in terror attacks within the United States. Zero have been convicted for actually carrying out a terror attack anywhere. Attacks in the United States by home-grown terrorists like Michael Page are responsible for five times as many deaths as attacks by American Muslims, according to Professor Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina.
  • Refugees directly benefit the United States, including economically. Typical refugees work more, earn more, and speak better English than non-refugee immigrants, as Professor Kalena Cortes of Texas A&M University has shown. This is why refugees, despite the assistance they receive on arrival, make a net positive contribution to public coffers in the long run. A refugee co-founded Intel Corporation; another refugee served as US Secretary of State; another refugee is one of America’s most successful businessmen of all time; another refugee shot Easy Rider and Ghostbusters. Refugees are generally a gift; admitting them is an act of shared interest.

The nation is now gripped by a wave of dangerous fear of Muslims. Candidates for the United States presidency now openly discuss banning non-Christian refugees, speak of three year-old orphaned children as a legitimate security threat, and espouse a national registry of Muslim-Americans. That last proposal is shockingly reminiscent of the US census registry that was used to imprison almost all Americans of Japanese descent without cause, or Joseph McCarthy’s “disloyalty list” used to ruin hundreds of innocent people’s lives.

These ugly ideas directly harm the US national interest, as thoughtful Republicans like Michael Gerson have pointed out. They are also a shameful betrayal of America’s values, including its 63 year-old promise to be a haven for refugees, and its 239 year-old tradition of religious tolerance

Standing against terrorists means standing strongly for rational thought and for the common dignity of humanity. It does not mean surrendering to low instincts of hypothetical fears and hatred. America’s great institutions of tolerance and welcome survived terrorists’ attempt to poison them on September 11, 2001. That magnificent tradition can and must survive the difficult months to come.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.