Spring 2016

Spare the Rhetoric and Save the Refugees

By Professor Maryellen Fullerton

In the early days of the 2016 U.S. presidential race, two Republican candidates spoke proudly of their fathers’ flights from oppression. They lauded the 700,000 Cuban refugees who poured into the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, fleeing tyranny, oppression, and state-sponsored terrorism.

Yet Sen. Ted Cruz said it’s “absolute lunacy” to resettle refugees from Syria. “Who in their right mind would want to bring over tens of thousands of Syrian refugees when we cannot determine who is and isn’t a terrorist?”

Sen. Marco Rubio said that Syrian refugees should stay in the Middle East: “Here’s the problem: You allow 10,000 people in. And 9,999 are innocent people feeling oppression. And one of them is a well-trained ISIS fighter. What if we get one of them wrong?”

Of the 780,000 refugees resettled in the United States since 9/11, not one has committed a terrorist attack in the U.S."

Both Cruz and Rubio have forgotten history. Cruz and Rubio forget the voices who sought to stop the 125,000 Cuban refugees headed for the United States in the six-month-long Mariel refugee crisis of 1980. Despite the risks and warnings that Castro had infiltrated his agents into the masses of bona fide refugees, the United States was determined to provide safe harbor to the victims of persecution. We are stronger and better for it, even though the Mariel boatlift had no pre-screening at all, in contrast to the multiple levels of security screening in the current refugee process.

Rubio and Cruz and other critics of U.S. efforts to resettle refugees have also forgotten successful U.S. efforts to resettle Hungarian refugees fleeing the failed 1956 revolution and Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. In those and other resettlement efforts, the refugees escaped from countries hostile to the United States.

Whether it was Cubans, Hungarians, or Vietnamese refugees, it was possible that one unworthy—potentially dangerous—person might try to slip in. We did not falter in our commitment to protecting people escaping persecution. That Syrian refugees are fleeing evil zealots is not a good reason to halt the long tradition of resettling refugees in the United States.

The refugee-resettlement process requires multiple levels of screening and security checks. Federal law requires the president and Congress to agree each year on the number of refugees the United States will resettle. The number for 2016 is 85,000 refugees, of whom 10,000 are to be Syrians.

The U.S. selection process is thorough. The United Nations refugee agency first interviews and screens individuals in refugee camps to determine those who have a well-founded fear of persecution and are truly refugees. U.S. officials then interview in person those refugees considered for resettlement in the United States. These U.S. experts assess the credibility of each applicant, and comb through each candidate’s detailed biographical file to determine if there is any negative information that would disqualify the refugee from admission to the United States.

Approved resettlement candidates must provide biometric information and clear multiple intelligence screenings: The post-9/11 security system requires checks by the FBI, the Defense Department, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and other intelligence agencies. Only after approval at each step—a process that typically takes 18 to 24 months—are refugees brought to the United States.

Rubio was right about one thing: It’s possible that there’s one bad apple in a group of people. But that is true of every group: U.S. citizens, tourists, businesspeople, artists, students, and athletes. That’s not a justification for quarantining the United States. Of the 780,000 refugees resettled in the United States since 9/11, not one has committed a terrorist attack in the United States. Two have been charged with planning to send resources to terrorist groups abroad; a third was accused of discussing terrorist activity in the United States, but had no credible plans. All three were arrested, convicted, and jailed in the United States.

With good screening systems, effective law enforcement, and vigilant citizens, the U.S. refugee-resettlement program does not risk the safety of the United States.

The current Syrian refugee crisis calls for immediate humanitarian action. It did so before the demons the refugees are fleeing attacked Paris and Brussels, and it still does now.

Maryellen Fullerton is a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. She is an expert on asylum and refugee law, with years of experience conducting research and working in Europe. She has been a consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and has been active in projects providing support to refugee law clinics in Eastern Europe. Twice, she has received Fulbright awards, most recently being appointed for the 2012–13 academic year as a distinguished chair in law at the University of Trento in Italy. She has published two casebooks, Forced Migration: Law and Policy and Immigration and Citizenship Law: Process and Policy, which are used by more than 100 law schools and universities throughout the United States. She is also one of the founding editors of the Refugee Law Reader.

This article has been adapted from the original op-ed published in the Orlando Sentinel on December 16, 2015.