Syria’s civil war, to which US inaction (early on) and action (indiscriminate bombing later on) have contributed, has created the worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory. According to MercyCorp, 7 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes within Syria and 4 million refugees have fled their war-ravaged country. Turkey is hosting about 2,000,000 Syrian refugees while Jordan is hosting nearly 700,000. One in five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee (imagine accommodating a rapid influx of 60,000,000 destitute refugees to the US and you have some sense of the scale of the problems).
The greatest nation on earth’s response to this horror? An “open door” to a measly 10,000 refugees and a whole lot of fear.
31 US governors (30 of them Republicans) oppose letting Syrian refugees into their states. Their sentiments are shared by their constituents: only 28% of US citizens support settling Syrian refugees in the US; 53% of US citizens would reject every Syrian refugee while 11% would admit only Christians.
This collective lack of compassion is rooted in our irrational fears of Islam, ISIS, and terrorism.
I want to commend compassion’s call to open our doors more widely to our suffering Syrian brothers and sisters, all the while conceding that compassion is by its very nature risky. Yet admitting Syrian refugees is not much of a risk at all.
In the fourteen years since 9/11, the United States has taken in 784,000 refugees, only three of whom have been arrested for terrorist-related activities. Those odds predict that less than one of the 10,000 Syrian refugees will be a terrorist.
Refugees, after all, are subject to the strictest security checks of any group seeking entry to the United States. Candidates are screened by the National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, DHS, and the State Department. The nine-step screening process restarts whenever a new item of information surfaces. Only 2% of the refugees admitted to the US fit the typical profile for terrorists (men, ages 18 to 30). According to the State Department, the vast majority of refugees admitted are children, women, the sick, and the elderly.
Moreover, Syrian refugees, fleeing ISIS’s barbaric and vicious rule, are not likely to conceal an ISIS spy. The odds of an ISIS terrorist infiltrating the US through the Syrian refugee program are miniscule.
Fears of various risks are often disproportionate to the actual threat. Fourteen people (out of 300,000,000 Americans) were killed in Islamist terror attacks in the US in 2015. A US citizen was thousands of times more likely to be killed in St. Louis, Missouri, which is ranked among the 50 most dangerous cities in the world with 59.23 homicides per 100,000 residents. St. Louis was joined on that list by Detroit and New Orleans. Since most of those homicides were due to handguns, it would be vastly more rational to ban handguns and New Orleans vacations than Syrian immigrants.
A 2011 study revealed that American citizens are eleven times more likely to be killed by a dog than by a terrorist. Ban pit-bulls? Car-related accidents were the source of over 21,000 deaths in 2013. Yet we don’t quake in fear when getting into our cars. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, the source of one in every four deaths. How about a ban on bacon?
In the United States, every minute, 24 people (mostly women) are victims of violence by an intimate partner; every day 3+ women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. Women should fear their partners not death by a Muslim terrorist.
We might more reasonably fear Christians than Muslims: right-wing domestic terrorists have killed twice as many as Muslim extremists since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
But perhaps, in spite of our best efforts, an ISIS terrorist will slip through. Even assuming an increased risk of ISIS terrorists with the influx of Syrian refugees, Americans should accept the risk.
We are a land of immigrants, who at their best, empathize with the plight of immigrants. On the Statue of Liberty we read: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” In compassion, we have lit our lamp and opened our door. As Syrian children are dying on the shores of Greek islands, now is not the time to snuff out our light and slam that door.
Finally, US Christians should lead the way in showing compassion towards Syrian refugees in spite of the (exaggerated) risks. Followers of Jesus, who “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” should not let fear stand in the way of compassion (Matthew 9:36). Perfect love, Christians claim, casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).
While fear of jihadist terrorist attacks is heightened among Americans, it is disproportional to the actual risks. But, even assuming the risks, our deepest values undergird compassion in spite of the risks.