Refugee Rhetoric in the 2016 Campaign

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump

By Luis Sánchez

Photograph of Donald Trump Courtesy of CBS News

The recent Paris terrorist attack has profoundly changed the narrative of America’s presidential campaign. So far the race has centered mainly on economics. However, the attack brought foreign policy to the forefront of the race.The Paris attacks were a reminder to American voters and politicians that foreign policy, especially concerning the Middle East, can still affect what goes on at home.

Candidates have mentioned a variety of ideas for how to deal with ISIS. Actions like instituting a no fly zone or increasing bombing campaigns have been popular. Yet a call for a broader, multi-country coalition has been the safe policy idea a number of candidates have mentioned.

The other issue that the Paris attacks brought to light is the Syrian refugee crisis. President Obama has said the U.S. will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees this coming budget year. Yet there are worries about the security threats the refugees might cause.

At least 31 governors, mainly Republican, want to exclude Syrian refugees from resettling in their states. While it seems that they can do very little to actually keep refugees from coming into their states, their public announcements have triggered a national discussion as to the action the United States needs to take to deal with the refugees.

Presidential candidates have aligned along party lines, with the three Democratic candidates in favor of letting refugees into the country. Bernie Sanders supports the current program which allows 10,000 Syrians to claim asylum. Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have taken an even bolder position, calling for an increase to 65,000 Syrian refugees.

Republicans have fallen into two fields. Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz have said we should focus on allowing Christian refugees into the country. The rest of the Republican candidates have said they are against accepting any refugees. Donald Trump – who has consistently taken an anti-immigrant platform – proposes an especially strong stance against Syrian refugees. Trump has pledged that his administration would deport Syrians already accepted into the country. However, due to the Paris attacks, more moderate Republicans also now oppose the Syrian refugees. Ohio Governor John Kasich, previously a supporter of the refugee program, has shifted and claims he would not allow Syrian refugees to enter the U.S.

These Republican positions reflect much of the nation’s mood. A large portion of the country is still fearful of incoming refugees. In fact, 54 percent of Americans oppose accepting Syrian refugees according to a Washington Post and ABC News poll.

With so much opposition to the Syrians seeking refuge in America, it is possible that we may not increase the number of refugees we let in. Compared to nations like Germany and Turkey, the number of refugees we are letting in is miniscule even though our screening procedures are tougher.

Despite the demagoguery, refugees’ actual impact on national security appears quite minimal. Syrian refugees go through rigorous screening to make sure they are not a security threat. The State Department has said they will be the most heavily vetted group of people allowed into the country. Asylum seekers are separately vetted by the UN’s refugee agency, the State Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department in a process that takes between 18 months and 2 years.

The Syrian refugee crisis and the overarching problem of ISIS are becoming main points of discussion for this presidential election. Until ISIS is contained or defeated, refugees will continue to seek safer lands.

The Paris attacks may have triggered fears of terrorism but we must remember that the Syrians coming to the U.S. are fleeing from that same terrorism. This issue has been framed as a national security issue when it should be framed as a humanitarian issue. Hopefully the candidates and the American people will remember that, like our ancestors, all these refugees want is the safety and freedom America has always stood for.

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