Have We Forgotten the Grim Lessons of the MS St. Louis?

1118_Syria Refugee
Five-year-old Syrian refugee Leen works on her homework at her new home in Sacramento, California, November 16. Leen and her family fled violence in Syria three and a half years ago and arrived in Sacramento in September after living in Jordan. Turning away refugees should be alien to a proud nation founded on providing a safe haven, the authors write. Max Whittaker/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Center for American Progress site.

The primary victims of the violence and chaos perpetrated by the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS, are Syrian civilians. Millions of Syrians have either fled the country or are internally displaced by the fighting between the Bashar al-Assad regime, ISIS, and myriad opposition groups.

The enormity of the humanitarian crisis involving 4 million Syrian refugees came into focus in September when a photo emerged of a young boy, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned off the Greek island of Kos in a desperate attempt to reach safer shores. That individual episode galvanized Americans across the political spectrum to demand that more be done to help resettle vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Nothing about that grim reality has changed in the wake of last week's horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, orchestrated by ISIS. Coming on the heels of the bombings in Beirut and the downing of the Russian airliner in Egypt, it is understandable that Americans are concerned about ISIS expanding its reach.

The United States can continue to take sufficient steps to ensure that terrorist groups do not exploit the U.S. refugee resettlement program. But America cannot turn its back on those already suffering at the hands of ISIS: We cannot succumb to the fear that ISIS explicitly aims to spread through its acts of terror.

Just a couple of months ago, Americans of all political stripes recognized the moral and security imperative to help resolve the refugee crisis. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called on the United States to admit "our fair share," recognizing that "it's in our national security interests to try to get ahead of this problem."

Republican Governor Rick Snyder, whose state of Michigan has already resettled about 200 Syrian refugees, immediately began working with the administration on plans to resettle more Syrian refugees in Michigan. Snyder recognized that doing so would help to improve the state's economy and noted that it is also what a "good Michigander" would do.

This makes the growing backlash against the resettlement of Syrian refugees—three-quarters of whom are women and children—all the more disappointing.

More than two dozen governors—including Snyder—have issued statements of dubious legal authority calling for an end to Syrian resettlement plans; members of Congress—including Graham —have followed suit. In the span of just a few hours, Republican Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, herself the child of immigrants, first resisted the movement to close her state to Syrian refugees then reversed course.

Resettling refugees is a core American value. The 1951 Refugee Convention was adopted in the wake of the world's failure to protect people fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany and other Axis powers.

America's refugee laws and policy are, in many ways, designed to ensure that we never forget the legacy of the MS St. Louis—a ship filled with 937 Jews seeking protection in the United States. It was turned away in 1939 and sent back to Europe, where more than one-quarter of its passengers were killed in the Holocaust.

We should not ignore the risks. But the United States already has an extensive system of background and security checks in place throughout the refugee admissions program. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of people who have arrived in Europe seeking asylum, refugees who are selected for resettlement in the United States by the U.N. Refugee Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, must go through multiple face-to-face interviews before they ever set foot in the country.

All Syrian refugees are given an iris scan when they are first registered by U.N. refugee personnel in a front-line receiving country such as Jordan, allowing a complete and consistent identity check throughout the screening and vetting process. These biographic and biometric data are checked against databases maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center, the U.S. Defense Department, DHS, the FBI, the U.S. State Department and the broader intelligence and law enforcement communities.

For Syrian refugees, those checks take two years on average and already include an enhanced level of review by headquarters personnel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services within DHS. All refugees go through a final check by U.S. Customs and Border Protection's National Targeting Center-Passenger and the Transportation Security Administration's Secure Flight program before their admission to the country.

This level of screening goes beyond any vetting system used in the United States's long and successful history as a world leader in refugee resettlement.

Since 1975, the United States has resettled more than 3 million refugees from around the world, including 169,000 from Bosnia and more than 100,000 from Iraq. During that time, there have been no recorded terrorist acts in the United States by a refugee. That should come as little surprise. Refugees are, by definition, people fleeing from persecution—not persecutors themselves.

Before we allow terrorists to dictate America's refugee policy and close our doors to the very people fleeing their reign of terror, we ought to take a moment to appreciate how safe the refugee admissions program has been.

At the same time, we should always explore ways to improve the security check process. The administration could direct law enforcement and intelligence agencies to devote greater staff and resources to the background and security check process. Congress should support those efforts through increased appropriations.

The United States also could help to lead a multilateral effort to initiate more intelligence-gathering efforts in the refugee camps. This could be done by conducting more interviews and collecting more biometric and biographic data.

In the current climate, Americans need to measure their reactions to any one piece of news, good or bad—particularly initial reports that may ultimately prove inaccurate. For example, European officials and French police now believe that all of the Paris attack perpetrators identified so far were EU nationals and that the two Syrian passports found at the scene of one attack are fakes.

Or when Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas explains his decision to block resettlement of Syrian refugees in Texas by saying that "any one of [them] could be connected to terrorism," it is incumbent on him to explain why a would-be terrorist would choose to enter a highly scrutinized, painfully slow and entirely uncertain refugee admissions process in order to gain access to the United States.

We also should not let fear push us to adopt simple, but incorrect, positions. It is just as wrong for Republican Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama to claim that shutting down refugee resettlement will avoid "plac[ing] Alabamians at even the slightest, possible risk of an attack." Closing down refugee resettlement carries its own risks.

Erecting barriers to resettling Syrians in the United States only increases the pressure on Syria's neighbors—such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—to absorb hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees on their own.

It pushes more refugees outside of official resettlement channels where smugglers or other criminal networks can exploit them. That intensifies the pressure on these countries and our European partners and contributes to the cycle of destabilization in the region that will potentially exacerbate the refugee problem.

The United States should be taking in more Syrians, not fewer. The United States can deal with this issue now, or it can deal with it later when it will probably be much worse.

It is at moments like this when we are challenged to be our best. Americans should not give in to fear. We should not jettison our values. And we should not abandon the world's most vulnerable people at a time when they need America's strength and protection the most.

Tom Jawetz is the vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. Ken Gude is a senior fellow with the national security team at the Center.