Paul Ryan joins the refugee panic: A political response to a trumped-up issue

Speaker Paul Ryan proposes a "pause" in the refugee program so Republicans can figure out ... something

Published November 18, 2015 10:57AM (EST)

Paul Ryan (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Paul Ryan (AP/Andrew Harnik)

The unhinged and ugly panic over Syrian refugee screening has already bubbled up to the highest levels of Republican politics. Yesterday, newly installed House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he would seek a “pause” in the Syrian refugee program as part of an as-yet undetermined legislative strategy to be pursued by the House GOP. “This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry,” Ryan told reporters. “So we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.”

Apparently an elite “task force” has been established to figure out whatever it is that Republicans think is not working, and there’s talk of voting on legislation sometime this week. “This is not about politics,” Ryan insisted. “This is about national security.”

Actually, it’s very much about politics. The Republican presidential candidates exploded with nativist angst following the terrorist attacks in Paris and started pushing for Syrian refugees to either be banned entirely, or to be discriminated against based on their faith. It was is all about challenging Obama on foreign policy and creating the impression that the White House is actively undermining national security. Ryan, as the new leader of the House GOP, is obligated to join the fight against Obama, so he’s proposing this “pause” – whatever that means – to show he’s down for the struggle.

One important thing to understand about the ongoing debate over Syrian refugees is that a good chunk of the conservative opposition to refugee resettlement program is based on utter nonsense. “We can’t vet them,” Rush Limbaugh blurped yesterday when talking about the refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. “The libs are trying to say that we're throwing our values away, that we accept anybody, that we are the single experiment in freedom and openness and tolerance… But we can't vet them. We don't know who they are. There's no way to know.”

The concern animating the suddenly vicious opposition to taking in Syrian refugees is that an ISIS terrorist will blend in to the pool of applicants and pass undetected into the United States to cause all manner of death and destruction. In the Limbaugh universe, there is no way to know which people are the terrorists and which ones are the real refugees. To just let them in without a proper background check is dangerous, and since we can’t ever be sure who they are, shut the damn door.

This is all completely divorced from reality. As has been explained over and over, the procedures in place for vetting and screening refugees are extensive and thorough. Asylum applicants from Syria face the harshest scrutiny of any group, having to pass multiple levels of screening from both the United Nations and the U.S. government before they’re even considered for refugee status – a process that spans several agencies and often takes up to two years to complete. (As Greg Sargent notes, the length of the screening process forces one to wonder what a “pause” will actually accomplish.)

Just over half of the applicants pass the screening process, and the vast majority of Syrians approved for refugee status have been children or seniors. We’ve had roughly 784,000 refugees come into the United States over the last 14 years, and in that time just three have been arrested for terrorism-related activity. That’s a terrorism-exclusion success rate of 99.9996 percent, give or take.

But the panic over the Syrian refugees is impervious to all this. Chris Christie, in a letter to President Obama explaining why his state of New Jersey would not accept any Syrian refugees, argued that any one of them “could be connected to terrorism,” and “neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity.”

Again, the government has actually already shown that it is exceedingly good at denying would-be terrorists entry to the country as refugees. But that’s not the reality Paul Ryan’s proposal is responding to. His interest is in assuaging the Rush Limbaughs and the Chris Christies, even though they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Thankfully, the White House and the Democratic presidential candidates have been harshly critical of the Republican reaction to the refugee situation. But, as is often the case on national security issues, you can always count on a few congressional Democrats to wring their hands and wonder if maybe the sky is actually falling like the Republicans say.

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By Simon Maloy

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