Blame the terrorists, not the refugees

By Kathleen Norland –
The recent arrest of two Iraqi terrorists in Kentucky provides a sobering reminder that the possibility of a terrorist seeking to abuse our Refugee Admissions Program, though minute, does exist. 

But our reaction must be to jail the terrorists and to continue improving security checks – not to punish all those who would seek refuge inside our borders or to say, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has, “We don’t need them over here on government welfare. I’m going to try to have hearings on political asylum. Why are we admitting 18,000 people for political asylum from Iraq?” Hardening our hearts to those in need would only benefit the enemy we seek to defeat.

On May 31st, we learned that two Iraqis with a history of terrorist activity took advantage of a gap in security check procedures to enter the United States and collect dangerous materials to send back to Iraq. Thanks to the skill and perseverance of FBI agents, their plan failed and they will most likely spend the rest of their lives in jail. The loophole in background checks which the terrorists exploited has since been closed.

While we must vigilantly screen those we admit to the country to ensure they do not pose security risks, we must not give in to the temptation to treat all Iraqi or Middle Eastern refugees as potential terrorists. We must protect the many refugees at risk of being left behind as a result of these men’s deplorable actions.

This is especially so given the devoted service of so many Iraqis to our armed forces and to a shared vision of a better Iraq. By admitting Iraqi refugees to the U.S., we can save the lives of those under direct threat, ease the suffering of refugee communities in urban slums throughout the Middle East, and lessen the waste of human potential that comes as a consequence of living in limbo.

Hundreds of Iraqis who provided faithful and valuable service to the United States now find themselves alone and under threat because of that service. A U.S. military translator named Ali was attacked by two men who followed him in a black car and broke his leg trying to throw him into their trunk. He is now waiting for refugee status, like many other deserving Iraqis who served our armed forces. Admitting friends like Ali shows the world in unmistakable terms that we will not abandon our friends and allies.

A generous refugee also promotes regional stability. More than two million Iraqis are internally displaced within Iraq, a nation without the stability and infrastructure to handle such a crisis. More than two million Iraqi refugees have fled to Syria and other countries in the Middle East, where they are unable to work legally and always under threat of arbitrary arrest or deportation. Alleviating such pressure and instability is surely in the national interest.

As we condemn the actions of terrorists and assess security screening procedures with vigor, we should remember that the vast majority of Iraqi refugees wish us no harm. They are deeply grateful for the opportunity to restart their lives in freedom and security – and share our wish to live in a world without terror.

The threat posed by those who seek entry for malicious purposes, though minuscule, does exist. However, we must not let it blind us to the equally urgent reality that thousands of Iraqi refugees seek admission to the United States not with malice but with the hope of emerging from the shadow of fear to earn a living, send their children to school, and to exercise their religious beliefs freely. The U.S. should not abandon its responsibilities toward its Iraqi allies and those displaced as a result of the security situation inside Iraq.

After September 11th, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “The people who committed these acts are clearly determined to try to force the United States of America and our values to withdraw from the world. Or to respond by curtailing our freedoms. If we do that, the terrorists will have won. And we have no intention of doing so.” Curtailing our generosity in response to terrorism would be as tragic as curtailing our freedoms.

Kathleen Norland is the director of the University of Pennsylvania Law School Chapter of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center.