Chris Christie is terrified of orphan toddlers. The hard-ass tough guy of the 2016 Republican presidential primary – the swaggering brute who is going to “prosecute” Hillary Clinton, the macho strongman who will have Rand Paul dragged before a congressional inquiry – is too scared to let small children fleeing from war and genocide into the United States for sanctuary.
“I do not trust this administration to effectively vet the people who are proposed to be coming in,” Christie said about the refugees applying for asylum in the United States to escape the horrors of the Syrian civil war. Asked if that mistrust and suspicion should apply even to young, helpless children under the age of five, Christie said it absolutely should. “I don't think orphans under five are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point. But you know, they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?”
This wimpish display by Christie was part of the broader Republican backlash to the Obama administration’s plans to take in a comparatively small number of Syrian refugees, which the GOP says is too dangerous in the aftermath of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris. Golden-domed bigot (and Republican primary frontrunner) Donald Trump wants to shut everyone out. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush want to make special exceptions for Christian refugees and bar the doors to Muslims. Mike Huckabee is trying to pressure Speaker Paul Ryan into banning the “importation” of refugees. The assumption animating all this grotesque xenophobia is that, concealed among the legitimate refugees, are an undisclosed number of ISIS terrorists who are just waiting for their chance to be waved into the United States. Even the orphan toddlers are potential threats.
I see all this and I’m transported back in time to last October, when panic over Ebola was eagerly fanned along by many of these same Republican politicians, who argued in the absence of any evidence or reasonable suspicion that the Obama administration could not be trusted to protect Americans. The disease was more easily spread than government scientists were acknowledging, the argued. The refusal to impose a travel ban from affected African countries guaranteed that more infected travelers would arrive in the country, they insisted. There were even warnings that terrorists would infect themselves with Ebola, waltz into the United States completely unimpeded, and then lick all our doorknobs before blowing themselves up. Christie quarantined a nurse who had exhibited zero signs of Ebola because he had to “protect the public health of all the people.” They were all completely wrong.
It was theater, with conservatives and Republicans whipping up hysteria and questioning the competence of government for reason other than “Obama is bad.” The same thing is happening right now with the Syrian refugee question. As Slate’s William Dobson writes, the people applying for asylum must go through a rigorous United Nations vetting process – interviews, background checks, biometric screening – before they can even get to the United States’ vetting process, which puts them through yet more screening and interviews, and which tracks their progress after they’ve arrived in the country. The meticulousness of the screening process has actually created bottlenecks in the system as applicants slog through a two-year examination of pretty much every human contact they’ve had over the course of their lives. In October, the president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants told Congress that the security screening process in place for Syrian refugees "has never been stronger."
No one has offered a compelling explanation for why this process is insufficient or unequal to the task of weeding out dangerous individuals from the pool of applicants. None of the critics grapple with the upside-down logic of ISIS attempting to smuggle itself into the U.S. via one of the most closely monitored avenues of entry into the country. Nonetheless, there’s a loud insistence that refugees represent a dire and immediate threat to national security.
Christie and others understand the potency of fear as a political motivator and are cynically leveraging the specter of international terrorism to whack the president as a feckless guardian of national security who is all-but inviting terrorists into the country. As with the Ebola scare, the refugee panic feeds exclusively on ignorance, with a healthy dose of prejudice thrown in.