November 17, 2015 | By Sara McElmurry

The Midwest Can't Afford to Close Its Doors to Refugees

Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Blue Star Patmos from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

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.

About

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.

Archive


| By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads

Council President Ivo H. Daalder shares some recommended reads to shed important light on the global headlines this week.

| By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads

Council President Ivo H. Daalder shares some recommended reads to shed important light on the global headlines this week.

| By Simon Curtis

A Foreign Policy for Global Cities?

Nonresident senior fellow Simon Curtis examines whether political paralysis on multiple issues at the national level should drive global cities to develop and advance their own foreign policy.



| By Saeid Golkar

Iran’s Secret (Weapon) Society

While the nuclear deal has been reached, US policymakers and their allies should not overlook the power of Iran's Basij—the largest civil militia on the planet.

| By Michael Tiboris

Global Goals: Can We Do More and Better with Less?

The greatest threat to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals is not likely to be the failure of the developing world, but the unwillingness of the developed world to do its part in moving toward sustainable consumption and production.



| By Juliana Kerr

Pragmatic Perspectives from the Church

President Obama and Pope Francis discussed US immigration reform this morning at the Vatican during a nearly hour long conversation that touched on numerous social and economic issues. The Pope is compassionate for the plight of migrants, speaking out and calling attention to those who died crossing the Mediterranean from Africa when he visited the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. In the United States, leaders in the Catholic Church also have been thinking hard and clearly about immigration, as seen at a recent conference at the University of Notre Dame.