In the midst of an otherwise testy press conference this morning in Turkey, President Obama eagerly denounced the calls from some Republicans to limit the entry of Syrian refugees to those who were Christian. The president asserted, “That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have a religious test for our compassion.” That sounds right and those, like Senator Ted Cruz who have advocated treating Middle East Christian refugees different from Muslim, have taken a stand that sounds like discrimination. Yet while religious tests are wrong in principle, Cruz understood a factor that Obama ignored about the nature of the mass of humanity fleeing the chaos and violence. But even Cruz was missing the point that is underlying the reluctance of many Americans to take in even a small percentage of the millions seeking to get away from an ISIS rampage that Obama seems unwilling or unable to roll back.
Let’s start this discussion by admitting that at the root of some of the resistance to the Syrian refugees is a spirit of hostility to immigrants. All of the Republican presidential candidates correctly seek to draw a distinction between legal and illegal immigration when opposing amnesty for those are in the United States without permission. But there are some on the right who are also unhappy about the idea of any large number of refugees entering the country even if they are doing so legally. In particular, some believe Muslim immigrants pose a special danger no matter how well they have been vetted or if their country of origin is not a source of trouble. Such sentiments are not defensible and Obama is on firm ground denouncing them.
But the question of viewing Christian refugees from ISIS differently from that of Muslims is not so much a question of a religious test as it is of understanding the reality of the conflict. After all, in the 1930s and 40s it should have been permissible for American officials to view Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied territory differently from those of, say, non-Jewish Germans who sought to flee Europe (though, fact, an anti-Semitic government establishment in Washington at that time, sought to keep Jews out more than they helped them). Many of those non-Jewish Germans might have had good reason to be out of the way of the Nazis and certainly anyone in their right mind would have wanted to get to America rather than to stay in Europe as the world exploded around them. But Jews were in a specific predicament. All Jews were in imminent peril of extermination by the maniacal regime led by Adolf Hitler and his collaborators. That meant that they should have been, at the very least, at the front of the line and treated differently than others who were, in a very real sense, enemy aliens.
Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq are in a not dissimilar position. As much as Christians are under intolerable pressure throughout the Muslim world these days, all religious minorities are in particular peril from ISIS’s terrorist hordes. Middle East Christians ought to have the right to live in freedom and security in their homes but the reality of the conflict and the current state of the Arab world means they ought to be given help to flee to the safety of the West. So in that sense, Cruz is right to believe these Christians should be viewed differently from Muslim refugees. That is not because we are imposing an unfair and un-American religious test on the Muslims but because the plight of Christians in the Middle East means that most of them have nowhere else to go to find safety but to Western countries.
But unfortunately, when Cruz says, as he did yesterday, that there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror, he is being as foolish as the president.
That’s not because there’s an organized threat of Middle Eastern Christians committing terrorism in the name of their faith as Islamists are doing. Rather, it is because anyone who thinks the federal government is going to be able to properly investigate anyone coming out of Syrian — whether Muslim or Christian — is dreaming.
Though Christians are not likely to support ISIS’s ideology, it is entirely possible that Islamists will be able to infiltrate any refugee group, posing as innocent Muslims or as Christians. To cite the precedent from the Holocaust, it was usually possible for European Jews to prove who they were. Given the chaos in Syria and Iraq and the demonstrated ability of terrorists to insinuate themselves into refugee populations, it’s not clear that many of those who have fled the war zone can prove their bona fides.
Until the intelligence establishment can convince us that they really can vet Syrian refugees and weed out potential terrorist sleepers, there is no rationale for admitting any of them, let alone the tens of thousands that President Obama wishes to welcome to our shores. Saying this is not a 21st expression of Know-Nothingism as much as it is plain common sense.
Once there is a reliable refugee vetting system in place then we can argue about giving priority to Christians fleeing for their lives rather than the religious test that the president rightly deplores. Under those circumstances, Americans ought to be generous in offering shelter to those who wish to start over in this country.
Until then, the refugees need to be kept in the Middle East. Resources must be summoned for their care while they await the end of the conflict that has chased them away from their homes and the United States should not be backwards in extending its assistance to that project. But so long as there is no reasonable way of knowing the extent of ISIS penetration into the refugee population and with the group openly threatening an attack on the American homeland, any talk about a mass influx into this country is simply irresponsible whether coming from a Democrat or a Republican.