How Many Syrian Refugees Should the U.S. Admit?

by Michael Dorf

The number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States peaked at about 12.2 million in 2007. It then declined in the wake of the global economic crisis and has been holding steady for the last several years at a little over 11 million.

In light of these statistics and the improving employment numbers in the U.S., the relentless focus of Republican presidential candidates (led by but not limited to Donald Trump) on illegal border crossings cannot be taken seriously as chiefly a response to facts on the ground. Rather, as I have argued before, it makes more sense as a cri de coeur of aging white voters who are angered and bewildered by demographic and social change.

There is an immigration crisis in the United States, but its character is wholly different from what one would imagine based on the statements of Republican presidential candidates. The crisis is moral and it stems from the fact that too few people, not too many, are entering the country.

There are roughly four million refugees from the civil war in Syria. As Europe struggles with the question of how many of them to absorb and how they should be distributed across various countries, the response by the U.S. has been very timid. We have admitted under 2,000 refugees so far this year, and plans by Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama to increase the number to 10,000 for next year are already meeting resistance in Congress, which is balking at providing funding based on the fear that mixed in with the refugees could be some number of ISIS agents and other potential terrorists.

As Anne Speckhard wrote in Tuesday's NY Times, that is a real risk, as is the risk that some number of refugees could eventually become radicalized, but the greater risk to national security may arise from the radicalization of people confined to squalid refugee camps. Until a stable political solution to Syria's civil war is implemented, the refugee flows will create a pressing practical and moral problem.

Various commentators have objected that the chief local backers of the Syrian civil war--Iran on the pro-Assad side and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on the rebel side--have not taken in many refugees, and that is a fair point. But it does not relieve the U.S. of its obligation to make more than a token contribution to the solution of the refugee problem.

That obligation arises out of the general duty of all nations to accept refugees but also out of our complicity in creating the problem. President George W. Bush's absurd decision to invade Iraq and the fatefully stupid decision of Paul Bremer to dissolve the Iraqi army not only destabilized the region but were necessary causes of the rise of the organization that would become ISIS. To say that is not in any way to excuse Bashar al-Assad for the war crimes he has committed against his own people or for reacting so brutally to an initially peaceful protest movement as to engender civil war. Nor is it to excuse Assad's chief backers in Iran or Russia. It is to say, however, that we bear some considerable causal responsibility for the military and political situation that gives rise to the refugee problem.

Americans were not always indifferent to refugees. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the United States accepted over three-quarters of a million southeast Asian refugees, a little over half of the world total. Then too, the U.S. bore some causal responsibility for the refugee crisis, although also then as now, it could be argued that the chief wrongdoers were those from whom the refugees were fleeing: Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian communists bent on "re-educating" "Westernized" and otherwise despised minorities. But people fleeing persecution almost always are fleeing from very serious wrongdoers, and so the U.S. at the time rose to its responsibility.

Seen in this context, the response of the Democratic presidential candidates to the current refugee crisis has not been nearly adequate. Bernie Sanders won't commit to anything beyond what President Obama has thus far proposed. Both Martin O'Malley and Hillary Clinton have proposed taking 65,000 refugees next year, which is much higher than the current Administration's number but is still an order of magnitude short of our "fair share" based on what we could be doing.

Even the inadequate numbers being offered by O'Malley and Clinton are pretty much DOA politically, given the current Congress. But that would seem to make it all the more important for those of us who are not running for office to name a more appropriate number, politics aside. If the debate is framed as a choice among 2,000, 10,000, and 65,000 refugees from Syria (and Iraq) entering the U.S. next year, you can be sure that the political system will not settle on half a million.

Thus, in my small effort to move the Overton window on this issue, I will say now that, politics aside, the U.S. ought to aim to accept a million such refugees over the course of the next several years, while redoubling our diplomatic efforts to broker a political solution that eases the pressure creating refugees in the first place.