The overwhelmingly Republican push to bar displaced Syrians from the U.S. is posing a dilemma for presidential candidates, who must balance the short-term need to win their party’s nomination with the long-term goal of winning the November 2016 election.
Republican opposition to the refugee program seems a politically safe bet in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, but expressing a religious bias may carry some political peril, particularly down the road.
“At this moment right now, the security concerns probably outweigh the concerns about refugees,” in strict political calculations, said Green, who studies the role of religion in politics. “But who knows what the perception will be six or eight months from now or in the general election? The farther one gets away from the dramatic event such as what we just had in Paris, the more important the concern for refugees becomes.”
The predicament was illustrated Tuesday by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who sought to separate himself from fellow Republicans on the issue by opposing a ban on the entry of Syrian refugees. His remarks in an interview with Bloomberg's With All Due Respect marked an apparent shift from his suggestions on Sunday that preference be given to Christians. That may have paved the way for plans Wednesday for Bush to call for sending U.S. troops as part of a coalition to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama for the second time this week lashed out at Republicans pushing to block his Syrian resettlement plans, saying that the increasingly rancorous U.S. debate feeds Islamic State propaganda that the U.S. and its European allies are at war with the Muslim world. “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate,’’ Obama said at a news conference Wednesday in the Philippines.
Calls from Republican governors, lawmakers, and presidential candidates to reverse Obama's plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. began almost immediately after the Syria-based Islamic State took credit for the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, which killed at least 129 people. Opponents of the program are citing concerns that terrorists could infiltrate the U.S. posing as refugees.
For some faith and civil-rights leaders, those measures bring to mind past discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, especially during World War II.
“It’s really unbelievable that governors and now presidential candidates are talking about discriminating against people based on both where they’re born and what their religion is,” said Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive officer of Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a refugee agency.
“In World War II, the explicit reason for keeping them out was not because they were Jewish,” he said. “As absurd as it sounds,” Hetfield said, the concerns were, “A) That they were loyal to Germany and Fascism; B) That they were loyal to Communism; or C) that they might have family behind that could be used to compromise them through blackmail.”
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday on Twitter that “the idea that we’d turn away refugees because of religion is a new low.” Obama on Monday called it un-American and “shameful” and said it would feed a “dark impulse inside of us.” His administration has launched a campaign to convince skeptics that the process for admitting refugees already involves careful vetting. Some black civil rights leaders also have taken up the cause.
Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said a religious litmus test would "fan flames of bigotry" and that African-Americans can sympathize with the Syrian refugees' plight because for generations they have been "the victims of terror at the hands of church shooters, bombers and arsonists."
For George Takei, a Japanese-American actor who was held in an internment camp during World War II as a child in California and is currently starring in a Broadway play about his experiences, the Syrians' plight recalls another dark chapter in American history.
“There no doubt will be those who look upon immigrants and refugees as the enemy as a result of these attacks, because they look like those who perpetrated these attacks, just as peaceful Japanese Americans were viewed as the enemy after Pearl Harbor,” Takei, who played Mr. Sulu on the TV series Star Trek and has been active in Asian-American and gay-rights causes, wrote in a Facebook posting after the Paris attacks.
Republican lawmakers are considering threatening a government shutdown in order to force Obama to reconsider his Syria policies. And there are at least some signs of resistance in Obama’s own party as well. New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, called for a freeze to the Syrian refugee program. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Tuesday that while he’s waiting for a briefing from the administration to shape his thinking, a “pause” may be necessary.
For Republicans, the danger is that their strong rhetoric against refugees will add to the party's image of being hostile to immigrants. For Democrats who support the president, the risk is that they will be perceived as weak on national security.
Foreign policy and immigration are usually “third-tier” issues for voters, exit polls and survey research have shown, said Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University professor and past president of the American Association of Public Opinion Research. Because Jews, immigrants, and voters passionate about civil rights are more likely to support Democrats anyway, he said there's “really not much of a risk” to Republicans opposing the refugee program.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who opposes the Syrian refugee program regardless of individual applicants’ religions, said while he believes civil rights advocates’ invoking of the Holocaust is “sincerely felt,” it’s a “knee-jerk” reaction. “The Jews weren’t organizing to slaughter people and all of that,” he said. “It’s a ridiculous comparison.
“We shouldn’t be resettling refugees except in the most extreme cases, I mean a particular person, say a translator for our soldiers who for that reason is in danger, that kind of thing,” he said. “There’s no way to vet people from these failed states. Not just Syria but Somalia, Yemen, Libya. What are we going to do, call the Damascus Police Department and plug into their files?”
Even if they don't pay the price at the polls, history could still harshly judge those who want to stop the flow of refugees, said Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and immigration reform advocate.
“When we sent Jews back to Germany and when we sent Japanese to internment camps, we regretted it and we will regret this as well,” he said.