The Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq hosts about 65,000 Syrian refugees since its opening in April 2012, according to the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office. This week, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead joined several other governors in opposing the White House plan to accept Syrian refugees. (Creative Commons photo courtesy IOM Iraq)
Suzan M. Pritchett
Suzan M. Pritchett

(Guest Column) — Earlier this week, following the terrorist attacks that struck Paris and in the face of the largest refugee crisis since WWII, Gov. Matt Mead joined governors from across the nation in asking President Obama to “halt the refugee process until it provides the security promised to and demanded by all Wyoming and United States citizens.” In a press release, Mead stated, “No state should have to endure the threat of terrorists entering our borders.”

There are several concerning aspects to Mead’s statements. First and foremost, as of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Wyoming was the only state in the United States that did not participate in the federal refugee resettlement program. That means Wyoming is the only state in the nation that does not directly receive refugees who have been designated as such by the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees and vetted by the U.S. government for the chance to begin their lives anew, free from the threat of harm and persecution.

While the history of Wyoming’s exceptionalism in this realm is unclear, Mead has put the brakes on any efforts for Wyoming to join this program in response to constituent critiques about the “threats” refugees might pose to the people and culture of the state. It is perplexing, then, that Mead felt compelled to nationally weigh-in on a life-saving humanitarian program in which, to date, Wyoming does not actively participate.

Second, Mead’s statements mistakenly conflate refugees with terrorists following the discovery that one of the Paris attackers was identified as a migrant to Europe from Syria. This sentiment is an oversimplification of the complex security situation caused by the refugee crisis in Europe and falls into the trap of what UNHCR has termed “demoniz[ing] refugees as a group.” It fails to account for the fact that several of the Paris attackers were Belgian and French nationals. It fails to account for the fact that refugees themselves are fleeing acts of terrorism and violence based on their religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership in particular social groups. The CATO Institute has astutely calculated that the terrorist threat from individuals admitted to the United States as refugees is “hyperbolically over-exaggerated,” noting:

“Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States and none was successfully carried out. That is one terrorism-planning conviction for a refugee for every 286,543 of them who have been admitted. To put that in perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.”

Moreover, equating all refugees with terrorists fails to acknowledge the rigorous screening processes that refugees undergo prior to being resettled in the United States. David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, has stated “There are many ways to come to the United States. Comparatively the refugee resettlement program is the most difficult, short of swimming the Atlantic.” There are at least five points at which security checks are run on refugees who are candidates for resettlement, involving over 12 to 15 different agencies of the U.S. government. These background and security checks take 18 to 24 months to carry out. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security conducts an additional layer of screening for Syrian applicants in order to determine any national security risks. Refugees undergo the highest level of security checks and scrutiny of any type of foreign national to come to the United States.

So what is the way forward?

Participation in the international refugee resettlement program is vital to the United States, because of U.S. legal obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention and its corresponding 1967 Protocol. It’s also vital because refugees are a part of our nation’s success story. Some of our most enterprising Americans were themselves refugees, including Albert Einstein, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google. Refugees largely achieve self-sufficiency shortly after their arrival in the U.S. and take advantage of the safety of their new homes to become meaningful contributors to their communities, states and the nation. One year after their arrival, refugees are eligible to apply for a green card, and in five years they are eligible for naturalization. In short, refugees are citizens in waiting.

Notwithstanding the legal and economic aspects of refugee resettlement, our nation has a moral duty to provide the chance to begin again for some of the world’s 60 million individuals who have been displaced by persecution and conflict. Wyoming’s moral duty to participate in this program is no less. People have been finding safety from persecution inside our borders since the time of our nation’s founding. The freedom of political opinion, religion and association are the values on which this country was built and it is our corresponding duty to avail those freedoms to those in the world who need them most. Now is not the time to turn our backs on the few, less than one-half of 1 percent of all refugees in the world, who endure life-threatening journeys and hardship to make it to the United States.

Can we ever 100 percent guarantee that migrants coming to our country will not attempt to harm people living inside the United States? Of course not. But is the risk worth it? History tells us yes. In 1939, the U.S. turned back to the Holocaust a ship filled with Jewish refugees seeking safety, and in 1942, 100,000 Japanese Americans were interned out of fear and ignorance. Taking the risk is the price of leadership and standing up for what is morally right and legally sound when confronted with a world beset by crisis. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt during the 1939 refugee crisis, “We must not let ourselves be moved by fear.”

Suzan M. Pritchett is an assistant professor and the Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Wyoming College of Law. In early 2016, she will be taking part in a number of talks and panels around the state sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council on Wyoming’s role in the global refugee crisis.

Flickr Creative Commons photo by IOM Iraq

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  1. Only one time has refugees committed acts of terrorism and genocide and that’s when Europeans got here. As for paying for Syrian refugee needs? Native people are still paying for yours.

    Larry Antelope

  2. I was shocked when I read that the wealthy gulf states like Saudi Arabia are taking 0 refugees, especially given that they have always been rather desperate for workers at all levels.

    It turns out that the reason there is a big 0 showing up is that these countries are not signatories to the UN High Council on Refugees agreement so refugees that go to these states aren’t counted as refugees, but they do get status as migrant workers. The Gulf Countries also contribute vast sums to support the huge refugee populations in the nations closest to Syria. This isn’t covered as much as it should be so we can really question it and learn about it. Thank you for raising this issue.

    Shannon Smith

  3. Lots of Sunni’s in the MidEast, hate lots of Shia in the MidEast? It is tragic the innocent people caught in the
    mix (and middle) of conflict of power on ruling blood hungry juntas. But, the problems have long roots going back centuries. Can any of your foreign affairs experts outline what the vast millions, given for Administration by Liz Cheney, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, was used for, and what was accomplished if any, during critical stages of the Era of Cheney Empire in the MIDEAST? After all, Ms Liz will be helping to pick the new President of the University of Wyoming, and Sternberg was rambling on “servants”, See other on WYOFILE.(his brief journey into the hinter lands of Laramie, USA)
    Thanking any in advance if they can figure out just exactly what Liz Cheney did with the vast millions put under her Administration(trust) as an Assistant Secretary of State over Near Eastern Affairs. Key search item:
    velvet revolution.

    Jim Hagood

  4. Kuwait? I haven’t heard that THEY are taking any Syrians. Per capita income there is $88K. Compare that to US per capita income of $53K.

    Oh, and Qatar? Haven’t heard that any Syrians are headed THAT way. Per capita income of $123K, nearly 2 1/2 times that of the US. Mighty rich folks there. Do they have an “obligation”, “moral duty”?

    Ron Gants
    Wilson, Wyoming

  5. Thank you, Dr. Pritchett, for a thoughtful article, particularly the link to the Cato Institute article. It gives numbers, chapter and verse for why allowing in Syrian refugees constitutes minimal risk. I encourage readers to peruse it. The US has a responsibility for Syrian refugees since missteps in our foreign policy – the occupation of Iraq – helped create this mess. In response to claims that refugees are a long-term drag on regional economies, the few studies that have been done in the US (e.g., the 2012 Cleveland report: indicate that there are short term cost and long term gains as refugees become part of the economy.

    Donal O’Toole
    Laramie, WY

  6. Ms. Pritchett writes “Mead felt compelled to nationally weigh-in on a life-saving humanitarian program in which, to date, Wyoming does not actively participate.” Ms. Pritchett and the editors should check the facts before making such bold statement – which I believe is false. It is my understanding that Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains Refugee & Asylee, an organization based in Denver, has placed Somali refugees in Casper. LFS is not associated with the Lutheran Church, and exists solely because of funding from the federal government. And Gov. Mead has created a liaison to coordinate such activities within Wyoming.

    Don Wills
    Pine Bluffs, Wyoming

  7. Influential members of both major political parties in Australia have verified that a very large proportion of those seeking entry without a visa are not refugees, in the historical & technical sense.

    They are purely economic refugees since many pay large sums of money to people traffickers and enter multiple countries before setting sail for Northern Australia in boats that will typically be scuttled after the occupants phone border protection to issue a May Day call. A refugee should, according to common sense and International Law, stop in the first safe country.

    These queue (line) jumpers take the place of genuine refugees who may have been languishing in a refugee camp for 10 years or more.

    Ms Pritchett’s article highlights the fact that fairness and equity need to be a primary consideration in light of her data indicating a minimal risk for violence.

    The impact upon public education resources is significant and fosters another form of migration: student migration from public schools to private schools. The result is that a typical city public school has a disproportionate number of students from low socioeconomic and non-English speaking backgrounds.

    How is it compassionate to ignore the ones who have waited the longest in favor of those who are the media’s flavor of the month?

    Douglas Shupe
    Dundas Valley, New South Wales, Australia

  8. Just checking in. Can anyone tell me how many Syrians are being taken in by Saudi Arabia?

    Ron Gants
    Wilson, Wyoming

  9. Suzan, thanks for the informative article. It is also important to remember that Wyoming under Matt Mead cannot and will not help it’s own citizens as far as health care for the poor uninsured. Teachers, school children, state employees, are also neglected. Every catastrophic event nation wide is considered an opportunity by the state legislature to display some form of hateful legislation or bizarre behavior. Any refugee should consider themselves lucky that they do not have to live in the Equality State!

    Bill Moe
    Jackson, Wyoming

  10. Re: Albert Einstein. I think we should admit any Syrian Nobel Laureates without further screening.

    Ron Gants

  11. Thanks for the insightful article. As a Republican I am ashamed of how some in the party are making political hay out of populist arguments. We have a moral obligation to help people who from news accounts have suffered greatly. With an unemployment rate of 4% we would benefit from more workers. Hopefully articles such as this will reduce fears of welcoming refugees.

    Damon Jensen

    1. What exactly are unskilled, uneducated people who don’t speak English going to do to support themselves in Wyoming? Answer: they are not going to support themselves. They will require housing, medical care, food and clothing, education. As will their numerous dependents that they will bring in through chain migration. WE will have to pay for this.

      Ron Gants

      1. What is your data to back up the description of refugees as “unskilled, uneducated people who don’t speak English”? Reporters following the migration of refugees in Europe haven’t had any trouble finding adults as well as children who speak English very well. While there may be some unskilled and uneducated people among the refugees, the trip to Europe is expensive and so people who travel must have an economic base to pay for the trip. Germany opened its doors to refugees precisely because they needed the influx of professionals and skilled workers. While refugees may indeed need some help getting settled and started, I expect that people who have the determination and desire to succeed that fueled their journey will not become dependent, but will make a strong contribution to the countries that are smart enough and strong enough and compassionate enough to welcome them.

        Linda Anderson
        Chugwater, Wyoming

        1. -The leftist media is not a valid source for information about these people.
          -These people are supposedly “refugees” fleeing persecution. Your argument for taking them clearly labels them as economic migrants. Which is it? Nothing about the vetting process as outlined concerns their skills.
          -The fact that they have cash to travel is not indicative of any skill set which this country requires. Rather, it may simply indicate the tribal nature of their society- their extended families contribute to help them anchor themselves in the West, in the hope that chain migration will bring THEM in.
          -There is no surplus of professional and skilled jobs in this country. The labor force participation rate is at a forty year low. The unemployment figures we see are bogus, and the economy is weak. A record number of Americans are on welfare and food stamps. We already have as many as twenty million foreigners in this country illegally. The Federal Government is borrowing over $1 billion/day just to pay the bills.

          Ron Gants

  12. Obviously, the problem is Wyoming’s want of taxis. The real question is if the USA would still be Einstein’s first choice of emigration?

    Paul Cook

  13. -Albert Einstein was indeed a successful immigrant. The people we are going to be asked to take, however, are mostly uneducated, dependent, unskilled, and have little or no English. They will require massive, likely permanent, public assistance. We are $18 trillion in debt. This country borrows over $1 billion per day. Please be honest about who you expect to pay for this.
    -“Rigorous screening” of these people is a sad joke. Most come with no identification. There are no databases to consult. In much of the world it is possible, and accepted practice, to purchase whatever official paperwork required from corrupt government officials. We already have millions of foreign criminals in this country hiding behind phony identification.
    -“Obligation”, “Moral duty”. Apparently these concepts only apply to the US and Western Europe. How many Syrians are headed to, say, Japan? Exactly none. The Japanese government has stated, explicitly, that their first priority is the welfare of their own citizens. However, we are not allowed even to consider this, lest we be considered “immoral”. Nonsense.
    -“Fear and ignorance”? Try common sense. Most of this current wave, which the realists among us understand to be the beginning of millions more, are Muslims. Their core belief is Sharia Law, which is completely incompatible with the founding principles of this country. Please discuss.
    -It is precisely because I am interested in maintaining “freedom of political opinion” that I am reluctant to consider admitting millions (please don’t insult my intelligence by claiming it will just be a few thousand) of people to the US who are adherents to what is rapidly gaining the reputation for being a death cult devoted to our ultimate destruction.

    Ron Gants

  14. Thank you, Suzan Pritchett. I took two great trips in 2015, one to Maui and another to Pointe au Baril, Canada. On both trips, the most interesting people I met were our refugee taxi cab drivers. The stories they told us were ones of grit and gratitude with a twinge of sadness for the loved ones left behind. I’m appalled that the state in which I was born and raised is the only one in the nation without a refugee resettlement program. I’m deeply saddened that Governor Mead has taken the low road of fear mongering. I always knew the people of my state to be brave and compassionate. When did we become such chickens?

    Marylee White