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Making Room for Syrians in Fortress America
AP Photo/Sam McNeil
Making Room for Syrians in Fortress America
AP Photo/Sam McNeil
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Last week’s arrest in Avon, Ohio, of an Emirati man in traditional garb is just the latest reminder of the charged and divisive political atmosphere that seems to permeate the United States this presidential election season, particularly when it comes to Muslims and Middle Easterners.

Ahmed al-Menhali, a 41-year-old businessman from the United Arab Emirates, was in the Cleveland area attending to a medical condition, when local police pinned and handcuffed him following an erroneous tip from a concerned citizen who believed him to be pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State. Al-Menhali was in fact having a phone conversation in Arabic.

City officials were sufficiently mortified and repentant over the episode, but the damage had already been done. Reacting to the Ohio incident, UAE officials advised this week that their citizens refrain from wearing the country’s national dress while traveling in the West, so as to “ensure their safety.”

That such measures need be taken at all speaks poorly for the political climate in the Western world, and does not augur well for what lies ahead. Attacks either orchestrated or inspired by ISIS in Brussels, Orlando, San Bernardino and elsewhere have turned immigration from the Near East into a national security concern for many Western publics, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the United States.  

This increased fear of sleeper cells and radical fifth columnists sneaking through America’s open arms is certainly nothing new, nor are the calls -- like those of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump -- for a new kind of Fortress America, in which immigration and refugee resettlement from the Middle East would be severely curtailed, if not halted entirely.  

However, a recent survey conducted by the Brookings Institution indicates that American attitudes toward Middle Eastern refugees and asylees are far more complex and nuanced than the alarmist cacophony of the election season might otherwise suggest. According to Brookings, nearly 60 percent of Americans support absorbing refugees from Syria and other restive Mideast countries, provided that thorough vetting and processing measures are in place. A slim majority felt at least some moral obligation to refugees from Iraq and Syria.

Individual opinion polls are simply snapshots of sentiment at a given time, and one can almost always find something to nitpick in a pollster’s methodology. This particular Brookings survey, moreover, was conducted prior to the June 12 nightclub shooting in Orlando, and American opinion has shifted sharply against Mideast refugees following similar attacks.

Brookings’ findings are consistent however with other surveys from the past year, and likewise reflect what refugee advocates and resettlement groups are witnessing at the grassroots level, said Jenny Yang, Vice President of Advocacy & Policy for World Relief, an international relief and development agency founded by the American Evangelical community, and one of nine organizations tasked with resettling refugees from all over the world.

“We’re seeing a greater number of volunteers in response to the rhetoric against refugees,” Yang told RealClearWorld.

World Relief and other refugee advocacy organizations are working to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees by the end of the 2016 fiscal year, in an effort to meet the mark of 10,000 set by President Barack Obama last fall.

Refugee applicants must submit pages of biographical information and go through a rigorous screening process involving multiple government agencies including the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. The vetting process -- which for most applicants begins overseas -- can take up to two years, and requires a comprehensive medical examination in order to root out any serious infectious diseases.  

The United States has accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees since the 9/11 attacks, and of that number only three have been arrested on terror-related charges. The vast majority come to the United States in search of safety and opportunity, and many are fleeing the very same forces that would do harm to the United States and its interests both at home and abroad. This is especially true of Syrian refugees.

“Refugee resettlement is unequivocally safe. It would be wrong, both morally and politically, to curtail Syrian refugee resettlement, and why it is in fact both ethically imperative and politically expedient to instead expand U.S. commitment to refugee resettlement,” writes Katy Long, a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

Taking in a greater number of Syrian refugees would not only be the morally sound decision, but also the strategically wisest, argues Long. “The United States is already the single-largest donor of humanitarian relief to the Syrian people … but it is increasingly clear that offering more resettlement places is essential to help alleviate the political strain of hosting millions of refugees in the [Middle East].”

This is a strain felt most acutely in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, where millions of displaced Syrians now currently reside. These countries are ill-equipped to absorb so many people. The opposite is true of the United States and the rest of the industrialized world.

This fall, President Obama will host a global refugee summit in conjunction with the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York City in an effort to increase international commitment to resettling, educating, and employing the world’s refugees. Washington -- in addition to recruiting more nations to assist in refugee resettlement -- is seeking a collective $13 billion humanitarian aid commitment for 2016.

Such efforts cannot come soon enough for Syria’s many displaced and exiled. And although America’s ability to influence events in Syria appears increasingly limited, its ability to save more Syrian lives is still a powerful tool at its disposal.

More on this:

Why America Should Admit More Syrian Refugees --  Century Foundation

Syria and the Erosion of Stability in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey -- ECFR

Successes and Challenges in Integrating U.S. Refugees -- Migrant Policy Inst.

Six-in-Ten Syrians Now Displaced From Their Homes -- Pew Research

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