All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 2015

4 Selfish Reasons to Take in Syrian Refugees

It's good for them and good for America

After the Paris attacks, many have noted that refugees pose little risk to the United States. Since the refugee program began in 1980, refugees have not committed any acts of terrorism in the United States.

If you include all humanitarian admissions under the Office of Refugee Resettlement — asylees, refugees, and others — since 1980, there have been just two terrorists out of 7.5 million, and these two came as children and grew up in America, not abroad. It took Americans less than 6 hours on any given day last year to kill more people than all US refugees and asylees have ever killed through terrorism. Moreover, no Syrian refugee has ever been charged with even aiding or attempting terrorism.

The threat is clearly minute. But there is obviously always some risk in accepting new people into any country. People of all religions and all nationalities carry some risk, so many have asked why we would accept even the slightest risk after the Paris attacks. (For more on this subject, see “Common Arguments against Immigration.”

We could argue that the humanitarian benefits to the refugees themselves should be enough. We should accept refugees because failure to do so would be abandoning our moral obligations. But since some dismiss the humanitarian argument as being insubstantial, here are four non-humanitarian reasons to take in refugees.

1. Accepting refugees is necessary to defeat ISIS.

As of this summer, American airstrikes had killed nearly 15,000 Islamic State militants, yet every fighter killed has been replaced by new recruits drawn by a constant stream of battlefield propaganda. This means that the propaganda war is as important as the ground war.

The US is losing the propaganda war, and so it is losing the actual war. ISIS appears to be recruiting 1,000 new fighters every month and has held essentially same territory since the US began bombing. If the US announced that it was turning away all Syrian refugees, ISIS would immediately incorporate this decision into its recruitment campaign.

Rejecting Muslim refugees — who ISIS has condemned as traitors and apostates — would seemingly confirm its narrative that the West rejects Muslims. In fact, ISIS has specifically said its attacks are intended to:

compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves… Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize… or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.

In other words, ISIS’s strategy is to goad the West into turning against Muslims, driving people back to its caliphate. Forcing refugees back toward Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who refugees say that they are fleeing, would play into ISIS’s hands and actively aid the recruitment that has already proven to be instrumental to their success.

2. Refugee camps help terrorists recruit.

It’s not just propaganda either. The existence of squalid refugees camps near the theater of conflict aids terrorist recruitment. A 2013 study in International Interactions found that large numbers of refugees placed in countries that have had historic conflicts with the refugees’ country of origin increases the risk of terrorism.

As my colleague Josh Hampson has written, “As the Middle East has long had interstate rivalry and conflict, moving refugees as far from the areas of conflict as possible must be strongly considered.”

Ann Speckhard of Georgetown University, a psychiatrist who has studied terrorist psychology, adds, “Experience from many conflict zones teaches us that the longer these refugees are left to languish in despair in camps the more prone they become to radicalization.”

3. Refugees can be national security assets.

Refugees can also contribute to the fight against the Islamic State in highly valuable ways. During the Iraq War, for example, 50,000 Iraqis aided the US by being interpreters or informants. Cutting off refugees would abandon our commitment to them.

US intelligence officials have complained for years about their lack of intelligence on ISIS. One official told the LA Times in 2014 that Syria was “a black hole.” Patrick Eddington, a former-CIA intelligence officer, calls Syrian refugees “the single best source of information on life inside ISIS controlled territory.”

Yet if we abandon our allies in Iraq, who will provide the intelligence we need in Syria? Who will risk their lives if they know that the US will never hold up its commitment to them? Betsy Fisher of the International Refugee Assistance Project told Politico this week that without the promise of receiving help in return to their services,  “I don’t think any rational person would help us.”

4. Refugees are an economic benefit.

Kalena Cortes of Texas A&M University has demonstrated that refugees had labor market outcomes that exceeded non-refugee immigrants. The study found that refugees that arrived between 1975 and 1980 — mainly Cubans and Vietnamese — “earned 20% more, worked 4% more hours, and improved their English skills by 11% relative to economic immigrants.”

Cortes explains that “lacking the option of emigrating back to their homeland, refugee immigrants have a longer time horizon in the host country, and hence, may be more inclined to invest in country-specific human capital.” Syrian immigrants even had higher average earnings last year than native-born Americans.  

Other studies have come to similarly positive conclusions about the refugees’ effect on native-born Americans. Giovanni Peri of UC Davis teamed up with Mette Foged of the University of Copenhagen to study the effect of 80,000 Iraqi, Bosnian, and Somalian refugees in Denmark. They found that the less-skilled refugees “pushed the less educated native workers to pursue more complex and less manual-intensive occupations.” Areas with refugees saw faster wage growth than areas without them. These conclusions are the same as those for US citizens in Miami who witnessed a massive influx of Cuban asylees in the 1980s.

Refugees have also helped rebuild and grow many communities around the country. As a Fiscal Policy Institute report from this year shows, small business owners have restored areas in Detroit, Minneapolis, Nashville, Philadelphia, and other US cities. After an influx of refugees and immigrants into Minneapolis, for example, foreign residents opened more than 5,000 new businesses. In Philadelphia, the number is more than 13,000. Most of these new businesses opened in poorer areas, revitalizing the cities’ neighborhoods. Refugees are economic stimulus.

Obviously, denying people the opportunity to escape persecution is inhumane, so our moral impulses should be reason enough to accept a very small risk on behalf of Syrian refugees who have experienced unfathomable  horrors.

Yet even if some Americans are unmoved by their plight, there are many other sound reasons to welcome refugees into the United States. This would prove to be a life-changing benefit to not only Syrian refugees escaping unspeakable strife, but to all Americans — whatever their values. 

This post was originally published by the Niskanen Center here.

  • David J. Bier is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.