In the wake of the Paris attacks, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are finding that one of the few avenues open to them — resettlement to another country — is closing rapidly over fears of terrorist infiltration.
French authorities have found that three suspects in last week's massacre posed as refugees, even though all were French or Belgian citizens. That has helped stoke fears that a terrorist could enter the U.S. through its resettlement program — leading more than half of U.S. governors to say they will refuse to accept Syrian refugees. They lack that authority, but governors can withhold state funds and cooperation, making their states inhospitable for new arrivals.
Gov. Mark Dayton has stood out as one of about a dozen governors who continue to support Syrian resettlement. Dayton said other governors are "fomenting public alarm" with their opposition. Dayton, it should be noted, has not gone so far as to invite a larger number of refugees, but said that "thinking every Syrian coming in to the United States is a threat for terrorism is not a rational assumption."
This is a good time to separate fact from fear and examine the U.S. vetting process. It is rigorous enough that applicants seldom complete it in fewer than two years from the time they apply. It includes what FBI Director James Comey has called an "aggressive" security check, along with face-to-face interviews and a 14-point list of requirements that must be met. In four years, only about 2,000 Syrians have navigated the process and actually entered the U.S. Most have been women with children. Since the Syrian crisis began, Minnesota has taken in a total of nine refugees — all in the last year.
Now U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan is calling for a "pause" in the resettlement program, to ensure that the government is doing everything possible to screen out potential terrorists. This could give the country time to weigh carefully the needs of thousands of refugees against the justifiable fears of Americans who remember 9/11 and are aghast at the Paris attacks. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who had earlier urged vastly higher numbers of Syrian resettlements, says that she is committed to continuing the program but that she believes the number should depend on the resources available for a thorough vetting of each refugee.
It's reasonable and appropriate, amid all of the noise and chaos, to pause long enough to verify that the U.S. has a vetting system that can catch what Europe may have missed, and one that has the resources to cope with higher resettlement numbers.
Testifying before Congress recently, Comey expressed concerns not about the current system, but about its ability to cope with ramped-up numbers. To comply with President Obama's goal of 10,000, he said, the U.S. would have to admit in one year five times more refugees than it has in the previous four years. The nation does not currently have the resources for that, Comey said.
Extending a compassionate hand to refugees fleeing the persecution of a merciless regime is the best of what this nation of immigrants is about. But we must do so carefully, mindful of protecting our own populace and fully committed to providing the resources needed to do justice to the task.