On Sept. 10, 2015, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the Obama Administration was preparing to scale up the number of Syrian refugees that the United States admitted. The United States had taken in around 1,500 refugees in fiscal year 2015, and Mr. Earnest announced plans to push that number up to at least 10,000 by the end of fiscal year 2016. This announcement went largely unheralded until Nov. 13, 2015, the night that hundreds of people were shot and killed in an attack on Paris, France.
The attack, for which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (often abbreviated ISIS) claimed credit, sparked a raging debate regarding immigration not only Europe, but the United States as well. Given rumors that at least one attacker was a refugee from Syria, people then questioned if it was safe for any country to admit any Syrian refugees anymore. The Republican Party in the United States, at least, had a firm response: No. The United States should not accept any Syrian refugees, let alone increase the flow from 1,500 to 10,000. However, despite—and perhaps because of—the facts and figures getting thrown around lately on national television, it may be necessary to reexamine the roots of the Syrian conflict producing the refugees to come to more informed conclusions.
In early 2011, peaceful protests unfolded across the Middle Eastern nation of Syria in the larger context of the Arab Spring movement. Syrians were seeking a democratic form of government and protesting President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule. President Assad responded to these protests with military crackdowns. Gradually, the situation in Syria devolved into violent conflicts between the Syrian Army and rebels trying to arm, train, and discipline themselves into a competing military force.
ISIS, which self-identifies as Sunni Muslim, got involved with the movement to overthrow President Assad’s Alawite-led government as early as August of 2011. Despite this, Syrian rebels refuse to associate with ISIS and have carried out attacks on ISIS and its affiliate groups in the area. As of present day, ISIS has managed to grab territory in Syria and Iraq and has proclaimed itself a legitimate state.
The war in Syria has claimed over a quarter of a million lives. Another quarter of a million have gone missing or have been wounded. As of this year, over 4 million refugees have undertaken perilous journeys to find shelter in a foreign country. As various news outlets have reported, none of these refugees took part in the Parisian attacks of Nov. 13, 2015, despite alarmist calls to the contrary. Instead, multiple attackers were identified as European nationals. Still, Republican calls for the rejection of Syrian refugees have intensified in the wake of the attacks.
The House of Representatives, however, voted just a week ago to tighten the security measures, despite the current rigorous screening process for those seeking refuge within US borders that is already in place. The American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, or American SAFE Act, was authored by the Republican Party and requires each potential Syrian and Iraqi refugee to be personally approved by the head of the FBI, the director of Homeland Security, and the director of national intelligence. The head of the FBI would also need to affirm that each refugee has passed a background check separate from the Homeland Security screening. President Obama has stated that he will veto the bill if it reaches his desk, but the veto could be overridden given the strong 289-137 House vote in favor of the bill. While it is unclear whether the Senate will even take up the bill, analysts agree that this measure is directly in response to the Paris attacks on Nov 13.
Republican governors have also indicated that they would do all they can to keep Syrian refugees out of their respective states. Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts was among them; he was quoted by The New York Times of Nov 16 as saying that he was “not interested in accepting refugees from Syria.” His like-minded colleagues have cited security concerns and the likelihood that refugees could slip through the cracks and pose terrorist threats when here. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh echoed Governor Baker’s concerns on safety, but also issued a written statement saying, “We have yet to receive guidelines from the federal or state government on how they will move forward, however should we be told that Boston is accepting refugees, we will work with our partners at the federal, state and local levels to ensure the safety of Boston residents.”
There has been strong opposition from some Massachusetts residents against Governor Baker’s refusal to admit Syrian refugees. On Nov 20, a protest occurred outside of the Massachusetts State House in Boston, hosted by the International Socialist Organization’s Boston branch. The Socialist Worker, a news source founded by the International Socialist Organization, reported that multiple other groups, some from nearby universities, helped create and execute the protest. With speakers from various organizations and an open mic period, the protest sought to publicize the issue and push for the acceptance of refugees. Similar pro-refugee movements erupted in states such as Texas and Vermont.
By the time of the Boston protest, news outlets were reporting that Governor Baker had refused to sign a letter written by other Republican governors urging President Obama to halt the flow of Syrian refugees. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Guyton told reporters that Governor Baker, contrary to his earlier remarks, believed that Massachusetts had a role to play in resettling refugees.