Shutting the Door on Syrian Refugees Helps Islamic State

They have to land somewhere.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Of all the reactions to Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, some U.S. politicians' objections to resettling Syrian refugees may be the most irrational. President Barack Obama has pledged to let in 10,000 people fleeing the carnage in Syria, but governors of at least a dozen states now say they won't accept any. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz wants to admit only Christians.

QuickTake Fighting Islamic State

Certainly, the Paris attacks were a gruesome reminder that all civilized societies need to be vigilant against Islamist extremism. And reports that one of the attackers probably entered Europe through a Greek refugee camp last month indicate that the continent will have to tighten its security.

But the American system for harboring people fleeing war and repression is different from that of Europe, which is struggling with a flood of refugees turning up in boats on its shores. In the U.S., it's a careful, lengthy process that has always put domestic security first. Just as important, it's a manifestation of cherished ideals from a nation founded largely by people fleeing oppression.

Getting permission for refuge in the U.S. takes 18 months to two years. For a displaced Syrian, it usually starts with an application to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, after which nongovernmental aid groups hired by the U.S. State Department check to make sure the person is eligible for refugee status. Then, the application is reviewed by a host of U.S. agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and sometimes the intelligence services. Officials conduct in-person interviews at refugee camps and subject applicants to what the State Department describes as its highest-level security checks for people entering the country.

The process is restrictive -- in the four years since Syria's civil war started, about 2,000 Syrians have been admitted -- and expensive. Last year, the U.S. spent more than $1 billion on the effort, or about $16,000 per person.

Even if refugee numbers pick up, as Obama has requested, the program will remain carefully cumbersome. It will never be an easy or sure way for Islamic State to place agents in the U.S.

Americans should weigh that unlikely concern against the suffering of refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey -- themselves victims of Islamic State. They've lost their homes and seen loved ones die. And in the camps, rape and extortion are widespread. As the crisis wears on, overwhelmed host states are becoming less generous; Jordan last year stopped providing free medical care.

It's this deteriorating situation that should most alarm the West. If the legal pipeline is closed, more refugees will turn to human-smuggling networks or succumb to Islamic State recruitment efforts. The best way to protect uprooted Syrians will be to end the war in Syria. In the meantime, refusing to help the refugees betrays American ideals, and can only increase the extremists' appeal.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.