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May 06, 2016

What Voters Don’t Know about Refugees

The Guardian reported on a recent Pew poll that found 85 percent of Donald Trump supporters believe that refugees from Iraq and Syria are a major threat to the United States. As for the other presidential candidates, 74 percent of Ted Cruz supporters felt the same, followed by 59 percent for Kasich, 40 percent for Clinton, and 34 percent for Sanders.

This unfortunate view stems from a fundamental misunderstanding about who refugees are and how they are resettled in the United States. Far from being a threat, resettling Syrian and Iraqi refugees actually benefits U.S. national security interests.

Refugees from Iraq and Syria are themselves overwhelmingly victims of terrorism and persecution from groups like ISIS. Firsthand stories of Syrian refugees like Hadeel, who fled the Assad regime, show a deep admiration for American ideals like freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Refugees are assets to their communities, not threats.

Meanwhile the refugee resettlement program has extremely robust security screenings. Syrian refugees in particular are the most stringently vetted group of people allowed to enter the United States. They must be cleared by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center. The vetting process also involves the FBI, CIA, and NSA, as well as Interpol. U.S. agencies use biometric checks and multiple in-depth interviews to corroborate refugees’ identities and stories. You can watch DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson explain the entire process in this video.

If that wasn’t enough, national security experts attest that resettling refugees benefits U.S. national security interests. Resettlement promotes regional stability by easing the burden of our already strained allies on the front lines—like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon—who are hosting the vast majority of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees who have fled the violence in their home country. These experts come from both sides of the aisle, having served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

And perhaps most importantly, demonizing refugees and treating them like threats plays directly into ISIS’s hands. ISIS wants Muslims to believe that they are not welcome anywhere except their caliphate. Extremists use xenophobic rhetoric from the United States and Europe to recruit more fighters to their cause.

As Michael Chertoff, former DHS Secretary under President George W. Bush, told the Wall Street Journal: “[Resettling refugees] allows us to truthfully say that we’re not hypocrites or bigoted against Muslims or people from other cultures. That has a positive impact in terms of the disposition people around the world have toward the U.S. You don’t want to play into the narrative of the bad guy. That’s giving propaganda to the enemy.”

According to the Pew study, it appears much of the American electorate across the board is horribly misinformed about the refugee resettlement process in the United States. A good place to start to turn that around would be to heed the voices of our national security leaders and the stories of refugees themselves.