The recent Brexit vote was a political shot heard round the world, and government leaders, not only in Europe but in the United States, would be well advised to address anxieties about globalization. Yet they should reject the temptation to pander to the bigotry that tainted the “leave” campaign. It would be tragic if the response of political elites is to turn a cold shoulder to refugees in need of protection.
We have spent our entire careers working to protecting this country, and we believe that leadership on the refugee crisis would both reflect American ideals and serve U.S. national security.
The United States has taken in only a few thousand Syrian refugees, a miniscule fraction of those who need protection. The war in Syria has forced some five million people to flee.
Thousands have died trying to find safety and millions are struggling to survive. These alleged national security threats are, in fact, innocent victims of the Assad government and ISIS. Most are women and children.
Given the scale of the suffering and the implications of the refugee crisis for U.S. interests, our government should do much more. That’s why we joined other national security leaders in urging that America reaffirm its commitment to refugees.
Compassion for people displaced by persecution and calamity is a core American ideal. For more than two centuries, oppressed people seeking liberty have been drawn to the idea of America, and ensuring that they receive protection is part of what makes us who we are. That is why the Statue of Liberty welcomes the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and why President Reagan envisioned our nation as “shining city on a hill,” “a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness toward home.”
It’s ironic, to say the least, that today some politicians are seeking to shut out refugees in the name of national security. The global refugee crisis is straining the resources and infrastructures of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, which are hosting the vast majority of Syrian refugees.
By doing more to host and help refugees, the United States would safeguard the stability of these nations and thereby advance its own national security interests.
Moreover, hostility to refugees helps ISIS. While the vast majority of Muslims could never support ISIS under any circumstance, anti-Muslim bigotry appears to validate the group’s clash-of-civilizations propaganda and alienates populations whose cooperation the United States needs in the battle against ISIS and other terrorist groups. Conversely, welcoming refugees regardless of their religion, nationality, or race exposes the falseness of terrorist propaganda and counters the warped vision of extremists.
Those who portray refugee resettlement as a threat to national security, some have presented a fictional depiction of the vetting system. Officials who actually screen refugees before they are resettled know that we can both welcome refugees and safeguard national security.
We have done it with Southeast Asian, Africans, Europeans, and others, and many of the children of those waves will now be manning these very checkpoints to protect their homeland, America, from any ill effects of our generosity.
Far from an invitation to infiltration, the screening process is rigorous; in fact, of all categories of travelers to the United States, refugees face the most thorough vetting. It involves multiple national and international law enforcement and intelligence agencies, fingerprint and other biometric data checks against terrorist and criminal databases, and multiple rounds of interviews.
Since its founding, the United States has welcomed millions of refugees, and we are stronger as a result. Refugees serve as a source of national renewal. Fleeing horrors today, they will tomorrow emerge as patriotic citizens who give back to the country that welcomed them in their time of desperation.
It is heartening that in the wake of the hate-fueled attack in Orlando and the Brexit vote, calls to ban Muslims from entering the country seem to be losing steam. Yet the global refugee crisis demands something more. We need a response that reflects our ideals. We know what to do. We’ve done it many times before. It’s time for the United States to lead.
Michael V. Hayden is a retired U.S. Air Force general and former director of the CIA and NSA. James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander, is dean of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.