Accepting Syrian refugees both humanitarian and in our national interest

A Syrian refugee child sleeps in his father’s arms while waiting to board a bus last month after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos.
A Syrian refugee child sleeps in his father’s arms while waiting to board a bus last month after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. AP

The United States can rightfully claim to be the most generous refugee nation in human history, having accepted more than half of all the planet’s resettled refugees since 1945.

Yet, as Republican governors and presidential candidates spar with President Obama over the potential threat Syrian refugees pose to our national security, the country’s inspiring and contradictory refugee policy history is largely being ignored.

We suffer from a profound “history deficit” on both sides of the partisan divide. This fact makes us more likely to repeat our mistakes and to ignore the remarkable humanitarian and national accomplishments of our refugee policy.

Those accomplishments have been bipartisan. They were grounded in the executive branch’s constitutionally mandated capacity to grant refugee status to peoples whose suffering is directly connected to our national interest. Indeed, the vast majority of refugees accepted into the U.S. have come as a result of executive branch responses to foreign policy crises:

▪ Greek refugees fleeing persecution from the Greek civil war in 1948.

▪ Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet repression in 1956.

▪ Cuban refugees fleeing Castro’s victories after 1962.

▪ Vietnamese refugees fleeing the victory of the Viet Cong in Saigon in 1975.

▪  Iraqi refugees fleeing religious persecutions that mushroomed after the U.S. invasion of 2003.

Throughout the Cold War, presidential refugee policy was governed by a desire to avoid past mistakes, most notably Franklin Roosevelt’s failure to give asylum to Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in 1939. More than 500 of the 950 passengers turned away from New York’s safe harbor died in Germany’s death camps.

Critics of U.S. refugee policy on the left note the disparities created by a refugee policy driven by foreign policy imperatives and entanglements. They point to the unfairness that would-be refugees from Haiti and Guatemala faced in the late 1970s and 1980s, when they were denied entry to the U.S. largely because they were fleeing U.S. allies, however brutal and undemocratic. In contrast, Cuban migrants gained refugee status upon stepping onto Florida sand.

But humanitarian-minded critics of U.S. refugee policy also overlook the untidy fact that without vigorous executive action on behalf of Cold War imperatives, far fewer refugees would have found safe haven here. Too many on the left believe national interests necessarily run counter to humanitarian interests, but the accomplishments of U.S. refugee policy since 1945 directly contradict that assumption.

U.S. refugee policy has been most successful when political leaders recognize that humanitarian and national imperatives often complement and reinforce each other. Critics of Obama’s plan to expand the number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees are rejecting an opportunity to find this common ground.

When Sen. Ted Cruz described Obama’s plan as “nothing short of an act of lunacy,” he ignored the fact that his Cuban-born father almost certainly would have been denied entry and U.S. citizenship if not for Cold War commitments that defined all Cuban migrants as “refugees.” More important, he undermined the very executive authority he seeks to wield as a future president.

When pressed by CNN reporter Dana Bash about whether his opposition to Syrian refugees would have potentially denied entry to his own father, Cruz asserted that virtually all Syrian refugees were potential terrorists, unlike his freedom-loving father. Cruz’s broad brush strokes might work well with one slice of the Republican electorate, a belief apparently shared by many presidential hopefuls who are competing to sound tougher on Syrian refugees.

But Cruz’s disavowal of the long history of U.S. bipartisan refugee policy is harmful to our national interest. It weakens the nation’s credibility in working with Muslim allies and makes it easier for ISIS and other religious radicals to recruit jihadists against the United States and its allies.

Obama was surely correct to criticize plans to refuse entry to all Syrian refugees as a “betrayal of our values.” There is no better way to draw a sharp distinction between the aims and methods of ISIS and that of the U.S. government than to remain dedicated to core humanitarian principles, even in the wake of a terrorist attack.

Instead of accepting the right’s pitting of humanitarian values against national interests, supporters of Obama’s refugee plan should defend both the humanitarian and national stakes in such policy and build on a tradition built by generations of Democratic and Republican leaders.

Gunther Peck is a professor of history and public policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He teaches U.S. immigration and refugee policy.