Yesterday Governor Bruce Rauner added Illinois to a growing list of states—including Midwestern neighbors Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin—that have said they will temporarily stop accepting Syrian refugees in the wake of last week’s attacks in Paris and Beirut.
States can’t technically block approved refugees, but that point is moot in the big picture. Instead, the fear and rhetoric driving these state-level announcements raises larger, more important humanitarian issues, with significant implications for local economies and national security.
The threat of terrorism is real—the attacks in Paris have claimed an estimated 129 lives, with another 43 victims in Beirut.
But refugees aren’t the source of violence.
Instead, turning away refugees actually turns away would-be allies in the fight against terrorism, driving them back towards the very forces they are fleeing. It also compromises an important source of human capital in the economically and demographically stagnant Midwest, where cities like Chicago, Dayton, Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Louis had previously called on President Obama to expand the cap on the number of Syrian refugees. Mayors of these cities—many the economic anchors of states now calling for bans—cited the “economic, social, and cultural” contributions of refugees. And it wasn’t long ago that Michigan Governor Rick Synder said he was considering welcoming more Syrian refugees to the state, calling it “part of being a good Michigander.”
The United States has long understood the importance of resettling refugees, and has a long history of successfully doing so, even in times of conflict. Over the past 30 years, our government has resettled some three million refugees, including 207,000 Vietnamese and 125,000 Cubans in 1980 alone. Since 2001, only two refugees have been accused of terrorist-related activities—incidents related to the war in Iraq that posed no immediate threat to the United States.
Most recently, the United States has safely opened its doors to Syrians. Since October 2011, we’ve taken in over 2,100 Syrian refugees without incident. Of these, just 94 have been resettled in Illinois, hardly justifying a block—even a temporary one—on resettling more.
Refugees are subject to the highest levels of scrutiny and background checks of any group admitted to the United States. In fact, the full vetting process—which includes health checks, biometric identity verification, biographical and background screenings, and in-person interviews—can take an average of two years to complete. Screenings are conducted via coordination amongst multiple security agencies, including the FBI, State Department, DHS, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Defense.
Also worth noting is that any refugee who has arrived in the United States for resettlement has been fully vetted by the United Nations in its own separate, detailed process.
Pre-Paris, public opinion reflected an understanding that refugees pose minimal threat to the United States. The 2014 Chicago Council Survey recorded a 20-year low in perceived threat from refugees and immigrants last spring, down 33 points from a high of 72 percent in 1994. (To be fair, the 2015 survey registered a slight uptick in concern, but overall levels remain low.)
Post-Paris, the challenge facing the Obama administration is to ensure that escalating anti-refugee rhetoric doesn’t compromise what is currently a safe and sound refugee resettlement system.
It also can’t let calls for a “temporary” stop to refugee resettlement devolve into a permanent block on this important source of humanitarian relief—and of human capital, especially in the Midwest.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.
Seventy-five years after Hiroshima, former deputy secretary of energy Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall and Stanford University’s Scott Sagan join Deep Dish to examine the threat of nuclear weapons today.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Mira Rapp-Hooper joins Deep Dish to explain why the alliance system is still essential for America’s global leadership – but must be remade to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Can an administration that up to this point has been belligerent towards traditional US democratic allies and has rejected many forms of multilateralism be able to turn the page and shift from "America First" to "American Led"?
The Council's Ian Klaus examines the importance of civil society in the urban response to COVID-19.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Segal joins Deep Dish to explain the battles between China and the US over products like Huawei and TikTok, their role in US foreign policy, and why US allies are choosing sides.
This week on Deep Dish, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Judd Devermont and the Financial Times’ Neil Munshi explain why Mali’s instability is a threat to Africa’s Sahel region — soon to be the West’s largest conflict zone.
Former Netanyahu foreign policy advisor Jonathan Schachter and Brookings’ Tamara Cofman Wittes join Deep Dish to examine how Israel’s foreign policy has changed and the way the country’s relationships will shape the future.
The Council's Sam Kling explains why the rising number of COVID-19 cases nationwide provides an opportunity to re-examine assumptions about the virus’s relationship to city life.
The Council's Sam Kling examines the mayoral response to George Floyd's killing — and the implications on the role cities play in national and global politics.
Lawyer and author Alina Das joins Deep Dish to share the stories that give a face to decades of legislation criminalizing immigrants — and what we can do to begin to fix the system.
Investigative reporter Catherine Belton joins Deep Dish to examine the people that surround Russia’s enigmatic leader – and the financial ties to the West that makes the Kremlin’s dominance possible.
The Igarapé Institute’s Ilona Szabó and the Financial Times' Andres Schipani join Deep Dish to examine the implications of social, political, and economic turmoil in South America’s largest economy.
University of Wisconsin-Madison historian Brenda Gayle Plummer joins Deep Dish to examine what the United States must learn from systemic racism's influence on our past in order to fix our foreign policy.
Facing a lack of support and a disconnect between national migration policies and local integration strategies, a small but growing number of cities are increasingly engaging in diplomacy to reshape migration narratives at the global level.
In the coming months, local communication will merit special attention as a key tool to combat discrimination and turn the COVID-19 challenge into an opportunity for moving societies towards inclusion and social cohesion, rather than xenophobia.