On November 13, radical Islamist terrorists killed 130 people in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, and the world reacted with shock and sorrow. Here in Texas, the French flag was hung in front of the Governor’s Mansion, between the flags of the United States and Texas. It was a show of “solidarity with France against cowardly terrorist attacks,” as Greg Abbott put it on Twitter, and one with a historical connection: France’s flag is one of the six that has flown over Texas, and France was the first European country to officially recognize Texas as an independent republic.
But Texas’s sangfroid proved short-lived. Within a few days of the Paris attacks, reports surfaced that some of the terrorists may have entered Europe while posing as Syrian refugees. Whether or not they had done so, the notion that they could have was alarming. The reports elicited particular attention in countries that have committed to accepting such refugees, including the United States, which has pledged to help resettle 10,000 Syrians by the end of 2016. On November 16, Abbott sent a letter to President Barack Obama declaring that Texas would not accept any Syrian refugees.
Abbott’s letter sparked an immediate backlash among many Texans, who saw it as hard-hearted and cynical political pandering and recklessly encouraging Islamophobia. Perhaps lending credence to those concerns, heavily armed protesters showed up at an Irving mosque just days after Abbott’s letter.
To be fair to Abbott, a few details are worth pointing out. He was one of the first governors to announce his opposition to accepting any Syrian refugees, but within a week of the Paris attacks, thirty other governors—all but one of them Republican, like Abbott—had done the same. The U.S. House, meanwhile, took up legislation requiring more-rigorous screening procedures for refugees from Syria and Iraq; 47 Democrats joined the Republicans in voting for the bill, meaning that it passed with a veto-proof majority. Public opinion polls similarly showed that a clear majority of Americans agreed with keeping Syrian refugees out of their states. Some analysts have pointed out that the U.S. already has a stringent screening process for refugees, which can take up to two years to complete, and that sneaking into the country as a refugee would be an extremely inefficient strategy for a terrorist. From any perspective, the risk of accepting refugees is small. Many Americans, however, are apparently reluctant to take any risk at all.
Still, Texans are accustomed to taking risks. And Abbott’s letter, and similar rhetoric from other Texas leaders, was a break with our state’s long history of welcoming newcomers, or at least abiding them, regardless of where they’re from and why they left. Without being sentimental, we have somehow managed to help people in need, from Mexicans fleeing Pancho Villa to Cubans and Eastern Europeans escaping Communism.
In this case, the people in question are from a country where a vicious civil war that began in 2011 has been compounded by the ascent of the radical Islamist terrorist organization commonly known as ISIS, short for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which can be fairly summarized as a psychotic death cult. The journalist Graeme Wood, after months of research and interviews with ISIS recruiters and supporters around the world, explained its overarching goals in the Atlantic last March: “We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change . . . and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.” ISIS claims to have established a caliphate in the swaths of land spanning Syria and Iraq that it controls, with its capitol in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
About four million Syrians have been displaced since the conflict began, fleeing the nearly unimaginable carnage that ISIS and the Syrian government have inflicted on Muslims and Christians alike. The majority of these refugees are in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands are seeking resettlement in Europe. The French president, François Hollande, ordered air strikes on Raqqa after the November 13 attacks, which he called an “act of war.” Yet despite the terror inflicted on his country, Hollande confirmed that France would proceed with plans to accept 30,000 Syrians over the next two years. “Our duty is to carry on,” he explained. This is, after all, the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The United States’ commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrians was not a particularly impressive gesture, even before public opinion turned against them.
Obama, naturally, was displeased with the domestic political resistance. “That’s shameful. That’s not American,” he declared after Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate, suggested that the United States accept only the Syrian refugees who are Christians, as a way to meet our humanitarian goals without jeopardizing national security.
Morally, the president probably has the upper hand. These refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world. Politically, however, his approach is proving unproductive. Even some Democrats agree that the White House didn’t advocate its position particularly well in the early days of the controversy, nor did it adequately address Americans’ legitimate fears.
Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic congressman from El Paso, illustrated what addressing legitimate fears would look like in a statement explaining why he had voted against the House bill. Statistics, O’Rourke wrote, corroborate the assertion that Syrian refugees are already subject to rigorous screening procedures. At that point, some 23,000 Syrian refugees had been referred to American authorities by officials at the United Nations; only 7,000 had made it to the second stage of screening, and just 2,000—fewer than 10 percent of all applicants—had been admitted.
Americans who want to welcome the Syrian refugees have also argued that we have greater security risks to worry about, such as the potential for home-grown terrorists. And Abbott, at least, was clearly aware of that danger. In his letter to Obama, he referenced an incident last May, when two men who had become enamored of ISIS attacked an event in Garland that invited people to submit cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. The two men, who wounded one security guard before being killed by police, were both American citizens who had traveled to Texas from Phoenix.
Then, on December 2, the risk of domestic terrorism came to the forefront when a U.S. citizen, joined by his wife, went on a shooting rampage at his workplace, in San Bernardino, California, that left fourteen people dead. Both shooters were Muslim, and the wife, originally from Pakistan, had immigrated to the United States from Saudi Arabia.
One would think that the facts of the San Bernardino shooting—carried out by a U.S. citizen and a woman who entered the country not as a refugee but through the less-stringent visa process—might have shifted focus away from Syrian refugees. But after months of nativist fearmongering in national politics, thanks largely to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, the debate over the Syrian refugees keeps veering into a general interrogation of Islam. Take Molly White, the Republican state representative from Belton, who earned some notoriety last January by asking her staff to ensure that Muslims visiting her Capitol office pledge allegiance before being allowed inside. White recently issued a call to arms on Facebook: “I am afraid these kinds of attacks are going to escalate until we realize the real threat and deal with it—Islam.” She later wrote that Facebook had deleted her previous post “because I called out who and what is the enemy of America.” Her concerns got a boost a couple of days later, when Trump called for the United States to bar all Muslims from entering the country. He later clarified that he would not, in fact, try to prevent American Muslims from returning to the country if they were, for example, deployed outside of its borders.
For the time being, it seems fair to say that the odds of America having a productive civic dialogue involving a major world religion, or refugees who happen to adhere to that religion, are low. But for the state, legally, there isn’t much to debate. The federal government decides whether to accept refugees for resettlement in the United States and under what terms. There appears to be very little the state can do to opt out. Abbott, who logged twelve years as attorney general before becoming governor, was obviously prepared to argue the opposite. After he sent his letter, Texas sued to block the federal government from referring Syrian refugees to any of the resettlement agencies based here. Many legal experts didn’t think much of the state’s case. And in early December, a federal judge denied the state’s request for a temporary restraining order, meaning that resettlement efforts can continue while the lawsuit is pending. As this issue went to press, 21 Syrian refugees—12 of them children—were en route to Texas.
But Abbott wasn’t dropping the matter. In addition to the lawsuit, he took a brief trip to D.C., where he held a news conference with Cruz to announce legislation that would allow states to turn away certain refugees.
Texans might have expected more from their governor. He had no power to interfere with the federal government’s resettlement plans to begin with. And if history is any guide, some Syrian refugees—no matter where they first landed—would have ended up here anyway. Since 2000 Texas has added almost 2 million immigrants to the state population, not to mention millions of domestic migrants. We’ve managed to integrate them, even though doing so isn’t entirely easy. The newcomers have strained our infrastructure, crowded our classrooms, and imported their culture from places like California.
Even more to our credit, Texas has stepped up when migrants have been driven here by distress. In 2005 the state welcomed several hundred thousand evacuees from Louisiana after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Just last year, Texas shouldered more than its share of the nation’s moral responsibility and fiscal burden when tens of thousands of migrants from Central America, many of them unaccompanied children, arrived in the Rio Grande Valley.
We’ve even managed to help Obama tackle the current humanitarian crisis. About 10 percent of the roughly two thousand Syrian refugees accepted by the United States prior to the Paris attacks have been resettled in Texas. We’ve welcomed more Syrian refugees thus far than nearly any other state, although you would never know it from Abbott’s letter or from the headlines that have resulted. Had Abbott handled things differently—had he chosen leadership over pandering, or more simply, had he remained sanguine—Texans might have reason to brag about our consistent competence in managing migration. Instead, we’re being scolded by Obama and shown up by the likes of Vermont governor Peter Shumlin, who announced that his state would be happy to welcome Syrian refugees, though the federal government hadn’t yet sent any his way. After all those years as attorney general, Abbott is used to crossing swords with Washington. In this case, though, he should have skipped the saber-rattling.