I will give Trump credit for one thing; he said that if elected he would ban immigration of Muslims, and he’s doing his best to keep that promise.
The ban is not on Muslims per se, but people coming from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan (ostensibly not South Sudan, but I haven’t heard how that has been implemented yet), Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Notably missing from that list of countries are places where actual terrorists have come from since 9/11 (namely Saudia Arabia and Egypt). I’ve seen reports that Trump has business ties in those countries, which might explain their absence.
So are refugees and immigrants really a threat to our security? Here are some key points to consider:
- No person has entered the United States through the refugee resettlement program since 9/11 with the intent of committing a terrorist attack. There have been people who have committed terrorist attacks having entered through other visa avenues (such as 9/11 attackers and the San Bernadino shooters, although with the latter it’s not clear that was their original intent when they first immigrated). There are also a few examples of migrants who became radicalized after they arrived, such as the Tsarnaev brothers who came on tourist visas and applied for asylum. Over the years the exclusion that they felt, especially the older brother Tamerlan, seems to have pushed them towards radicalization (while the U.S. has far fewer problems integrated young immigrant men than countries like France, we could still do a better job but that’s for another post). There is also the case of the Iraqi insurgent who was resettled in Kentucky, but he never did anything after coming to the U.S. before he was arrested by federal agents. He’s the closest thing to a “refugee terrorist” that I can find. This is a testament to how well the current vetting process works, which has been periodically scrutinized and strengthened over time (which I’ve written about previously).
- Immigrants have lower crime rates generally than U.S.-born persons. This has been reported on ad nauseam, and my friend and fellow migration scholar Ruben Rumbaut has written quite a bit on this. So statistically if you want to avoid violent areas, hang out in an immigrant-dense neighborhood.
- Your furniture is a bigger threat to you than terrorism. Terrorism works not by killing or injury a lot of people. It works by killing or injuring a relatively small number of people but scaring the bejeezus out of a much larger number of people. That is why we spend so much more time and energy creating laws and policies to root out terrorists while doing little to address gun violence, or just simply eating better and getting more exercise.
- Domestic terrorism, while not has big of a problem as non-mass shooting gun violence, is still a bigger problem them foreign terrorism. Angry white guys continue to be a problem in this country.
- Going after terrorists through the immigration system is using a really big net with really big holes to catch a very small amount of fish. The Migration Policy Institute is a great source of information about migration in the U.S.; here are some numbers from one of their snapshot reports:
- There are about 42 million foreign-born persons in the U.S. That’s a whole lot of people the vast majority of whom are doing nothing wrong, but rather bring a lot of resources to this country. Immigrants tend to be within working age and are more productive than the average American population. Since 2010 the average immigrant was better educated than the average American.
- In 2014 there were over 180 million people who entered the U.S. temporarily, mostly for business or tourism.
- In 2015 the Department of State issued over 10 million non-immigrant visas.
That is a lot of people to vet. It would of course be much easier for foreign-born terrorists to enter the U.S. through one of these temporary visas (as the 9/11 attackers did), but even then it is such a small potential population. Meanwhile, putting all of these people through a rigorous vetting process will slow our economy, discourage international students from entering university here (and make no mistake, American higher education is still afloat because of international students), all to keep us safe from a harm that is statistically less likely than slipping in a bath tub (Obama may have gotten into trouble for saying that, but he wasn’t wrong).
My point is, good counter-terrorism involves intelligence, both in the national security sense and in terms of common sense. Making wrong-headed policy might assuage fears but won’t actually make us safer, will increase human suffering and economic problems, and in many cases will be used as a recruiting tool for jihadists and thus making the problem even worse.