Last week, two Iraqi men were arrested in Kentucky and charged with (among other things) “conspiring to kill U.S. nationals abroad, conspiring to use explosives against U.S. nationals abroad, distributing information on the manufacture and use of IEDs, attempting to provide material support to terrorists and to al-Qaida in Iraq, and conspiring to transfer, possess and export Stinger missiles.” According to the criminal complaints (available here and here), both men entered the United States as refugees in 2009, and have been living here ever since.
Given the obvious breach of security, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has called for hearings to determine “how the heck” these alleged terrorists got into our country. Senator Paul also asked, “How do you get asylum when you come from a friendly government?” The Center for Immigration Studies echoes this sentiment:
The bigger question is why are we taking refugees from Iraq at all? Resettlement to the United States should be used only as the absolute last resort for people who will surely be killed if they stay where they are and who have nowhere else — nowhere whatsoever — to go.
CIS complains that as conditions in Iraq have improved, the number of Iraqi refugees coming to the U.S. has ballooned–from 200 in the early years of our “Mesopotamian adventure” (as CIS calls it) to 18,000/year in recent years.
As to the first point, I agree that refugees coming to the U.S. pose a security challenge. It’s possible to search a person’s criminal background in the United States and in most developed countries. But refugees rarely come from developed countries. DHS supposedly has ways to check a person’s background against certain databases, but again, it is not clear how these databases are created or how accurate they are. Of course, we face these same challenges for anyone coming to the United States. The question is, what do we do about it?
Some commentators, like Mark Krikorian at CIS, believe we should simply stop admitting refugees from Iraq (and possibly from everywhere else as well). I suppose that would close the door to terrorists who might take advantage of our generous refugee program, but it seems like throwing out the baby with the bath water. The fact is, there are very few examples of refugees who have committed (or been accused) of terrorism. The idea that we should forsake all refugees (and our humanitarian obligations/ideals) because of a few bad actors is a short-sighted and cowardly response to the problem. As a nation, we are a world leader in many areas, including the humanitarian area. We have greatly benefited from our leadership role, and from the many refugees, asylees, and immigrants who have made our country their new home. We should not give up our leadership or the benefits that accrue to us because we fear terrorism. We should not let the terrorists win.
I also want to briefly address Senator Paul’s second point–that people should not receive asylum when they come from a country with a “friendly government,” like Iraq. The law of asylum states that a person may receive asylum if he has a well-founded fear of persecution in his country. Whether that country is friend or foe is not relevant to the law. The law also states that a person may receive asylum if he fears persecution by a non-governmental actor, and the government is unable or unwilling to protect him. Sometimes, governments friendly to us persecute their citizens (for example, we had a good relationship with General Pinochet, but he killed thousands of his people). Other times, friendly governments are unable to protect their citizens, as is the case for many people fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan or insurgents in Iraq. Since asylum is a humanitarian relief, it should not be contingent on political alliances. If a person meets the standards for relief, that should be enough.
All that said, Senate hearings on security and refugees is a worthy topic. In examining security, I hope Senator Paul keeps in mind the humanitarian nature of the refugee program, the benefits that program brings us, and the ideals that the program represents.