Last month, a Somali refugee and college student drove his car into a crowd at his university, jumped out, and started stabbing people. He was quickly shot dead by a campus police officer. The assailant, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, apparently left Somalia, lived for a time in Pakistan, and was resettled as a refugee in the United States in 2014. After the incident, Donald Trump tweeted that Mr. Artan “should not have been in our country.”
Incidents like this–where a refugee or asylee commits a (probable) terrorist act–are exceedingly rare. As far as I know, the only other successful attack involving “refugees” was the Boston Marathon bombing, perpetrated by two brothers who came to the U.S. as derivatives of their parents’ asylum case. Since 2001, the U.S. has admitted approximately 785,000 refugees and roughly 400,000 asylum seekers. So if all these numbers are accurate (a big “if”, as discussed below), then the odds that any given refugee or asylee is a terrorist is 1 in 395,000 or 0.0000844%.
In looking at the question of refugees/asylees and terrorism, the main problem is that the numbers listed above are not accurate. First, there is no consistent way to count people entering and leaving the United States. The refugee numbers are probably more accurate (though it’s unclear to me whether all aliens admitted for humanitarian reasons are included in the count), but asylum numbers are all over the map. Part of the problem is that different agencies (DHS and DOJ) deal with asylum applicants, and they seem to count people differently–sometimes derivative asylees are counted; other times, only the principal is counted. How do the agencies count people whose cases are pending? What about people granted other forms of relief (like Withholding of Removal or Torture Convention relief)? How are family members who “follow to join” the principal applicant counted? I have no idea about any of this, and there is no easily available data source to help. Not surprisingly, the dearth of data has opened the door to conspiracy theorists and anti-immigration advocates who claim we have an “open borders” immigration policy. But the absence of data also creates problems for fair-minded policy makers. How can we make appropriate decisions when we do not have a decent understanding of what is going on?
A second problem is that we do not have reliable information about how many non-citizens are involved in terrorist activities. Last summer, Senators Jeff Sessions (Donald Trump’s current nominee for Attorney General) and Ted Cruz sent a letter to the Obama Administration claiming that at least 380 of 580 people convicted of terrorism charges in the U.S. between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2014 are foreign born. According to the Senators, “Of the 380 foreign-born, at least 24 were initially admitted to the United States as refugees, and at least 33 had overstayed their visas.” The letter further claims that since early 2014, 131 individuals have been “implicated” in terrorist activities. Of those, “at least 16 were initially admitted to the United States as refugees, and at least 17… are the natural-born citizen children of immigrants.” Using these numbers and the (admittedly questionable) refugee and asylee numbers listed above, the odds that any given refugee or asylee is involved in terrorist activities is still pretty low: One refugee/asyee out of every 28,902 will be involved in terrorist activities (or about 0.0035% of refugees/asylees).
The Senators were only able to come up with their figures based on publicly-available sources (like news articles), since DHS did not release immigration information about the 580 individuals convicted of terrorist-related activities, or the 131 people “implicated” in such activities. Whether DHS’s failure to release this information is prosaic (perhaps confidentiality or technical issues pose a challenge) or nefarious, we do not know, since apparently, the agency has not responded to the Senators’ requests. The fact is, Senators Sessions and Cruz are correct: We need more data about the people who are entering our country, and we need to know whether refugees and asylees (and others) are committing crimes or becoming involved with terrorism. Not only will this better allow us to make appropriate policy decisions, but it will also help prevent the type of fake news that is currently filling—and exploiting—the information gap.
But of course, the situation is more complex than any statistics alone might show. Some people who become involved in terrorism are mentally ill individuals exploited by terrorists (or–sometimes–by over-zealous law-enforcement officers). In other cases, people providing support to a “terrorist” group overseas do not know that the group is involved in harmful activities, or they do not understand that the U.S government views the group as dangerous. Also, as I have discussed previously, the “material support” provisions of our anti-terrorism legislation are extremely broad, and so people who seem far removed from terrorit activities can get caught up by our overly-broad laws.
Nevertheless, we need to know more about foreign-born individuals–including asylum seekers and refugees–who are implicated in terrorist-related activities, and the basic starting point for any such analysis is the statistical data about who is coming here, how they are getting here, and whether they are accused or convicted of crimes or terrorist-related activities.
Assuming we do get some accurate data, the question then becomes, How do we evaluate such information? How do we balance concrete examples of non-citizens engaged in criminal or terrorist activities, on the one hand, with the benefits of our refugee program, on the other?
And by the way, despite what some anti-refugee advocates might argue, our refugee and asylum programs provide concrete benefits: They establish us as a world leader in the humanitarian realm, they demonstrate our fealty to those who have stood with us and who support our values (and thus encourage others to continue standing with us), they provide our country with diverse and energetic new residents who are grateful for our generosity and who contribute to our society. These programs also represent an expression of who we are as a people. As I have frequently argued, for us to abandon these programs–and the humanitarian ideals that they represent–due to our fear of terrorism is a victory for the terrorists.
But we also need to balance our humanitarian policies and our national security. We need to better understand the issues–so that the public can be more well-informed and so policy makers have the information they need to make good decisions. I hope the new Administration will shine some light on these issues, so that any changes to our refugee and asylum policies are based on accurate information, and not on conjecture or fear.