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Libertarians differ from conservatives on the Syrian refugee issue and on immigration policy in general. I’m in favor of liberalized immigration because it confers powerful economic advantages. That does not imply, however, a willingness to sacrifice border security and control over the flow of immigrants. Border security is critical to the notion of U.S. sovereignty, and though I am loath to do so, I will credit Donald Trump for asking two pertinent questions: “Do we have a country? Or do we not have a country?” This is all the more important in an age when terror on the scale of a 9/11, Paris, or terrorist use of WMDs is a threat.

One of the few legitimate functions of government is national security, and the U.S. Constitution sought to assure that security would be provided without compromising the liberties of individual citizens. I’d like outsiders to feel welcome to join us and partake of those liberties, but only subject to precautions related to security. Given current threats, it is reasonable to insist on deliberation and caution in admitting new immigrants and refugees. That should include a careful vetting process and possibly post-entry safeguards such as mandatory touch-points with immigration and security officials.

Recent commentary on both sides of the Syrian refugee debate has featured conservatives waxing enthusiastic over police-state security measures and cavalier dismissal of security concerns by the Left, including a moment of apparent delusion from The Daily Kos when it weighed-in on refugees and certain principles of religious ethics, probably not that outlet’s strong suit. The Left’s usual approach to commentary on social media amounts to an exercise in “virtue signaling” (HT: Glenn Reynolds) without much critical thought, and this is no exception.

Refugees or asylum-seekers may need expedited initial handling for their own safety and protection. The tumultuous experience of fleeing a hostile regime without adequate planning, and possibly involving the loss of loved ones and possessions, suggests a need for greater assistance for refugees than for typical immigrants. The expense of a large influx of refugees is likely to be high. A solution used successfully by Canada involves private sponsorship of refugees, and there are apparently a large number of Americans willing to serve as sponsors. It is possible to vet the sponsors, of course, and might provide more reliable follow-up with the refugees themselves.

Certain classes of immigrants may be considered high-risk, though refugees have not been high-risk historically. This is one of several points made by Davis Bier at the Foundation for Economic Education in “Six Reasons To Welcome Refugees“. Bier provides a good perspective, but I don’t accept all of his assertions. He says (italicized):

  • The Paris attackers were not refugees: No, but at least one of them seems to have taken advantage of the European refugee process.
  • U.S. refugees don’t become terrorists: You can certainly vouch for this in the past tense, but it’s less certain going forward. The complete lack of documentation of many Syrian refugees complicates the vetting process.
  • Other migration channels are easier to exploit: Probably true, if the claimed thoroughness of the refugee vetting process is to be believed. Also, the resettlement from temporary camps can take two years or more, but that kind of delay is not required.
  • ISIS sees Syrian refugees as traitors: This reinforces the need to protect refugees, but it strikes me as irrelevant to the question of terrorist infiltration. A better question is whether ISIS is capable of passing-off one of their own as a refugee.
  • Turning away allies will make us less safe: It certainly won’t win us friends.
  • We should demonstrate moral courage: Helping legitimate refugees is certainly an honorable thing to do. The author points to American resistance to accepting Jewish refugees prior to World War II for fear they might be German spies. This is addressed in more detail below.

A different perspective is given in “There Are Serious, Unbigoted Reasons to Be Wary of a Flood of Syrian Refugees“, by Ian Tuttle in National Review. He asserts that the comparison of current Syrian refugees to Jewish refugees prior to WWII is inappropriate, and I largely agree. The infiltration of German spies into the Jewish refugee population was a perceived threat, but no one thought the Jews represented a risk of terror on our shores. There is nothing incompatible about feeling regret for the attitude many took toward the Jewish refugees of that era while exercising caution in the face of new risks.

Tuttle cites a recent Pew Research poll of Muslims in various countries finding that 4% to 14% of respondents approve of ISIS. Can you imagine a similar level of support for terrorism in the U.S.? This is an unfortunate social malignancy that should give us pause. Another Pew Research poll of Muslims in various countries found that the minority who believe that suicide bombing was justified ranges from 3% to 45%. It is therefore difficult to argue with Tuttle when he says:

A non-trivial minority of refugees who support a murderous, metastatic caliphate is a reason for serious concern.

Tuttle notes that Syrian refugees will not arrive on our shores directly from Syria.  Thus, the urgency of accepting those refugees comes into question. It is curious that such wealthy middle eastern countries as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have not accepted refugees from Syria.

Given the immediacy of terrorist threats, the lack of even basic documents for many Syrian refugees, and the Obama Administration’s record of failure in the Middle East, it is reasonable to question their assurances as to the adequacy of the refugee vetting process. Indeed, as this article warns:

The director of the National Counterterrorism Center admitted that terrorist groups are very interested in using refugee programs to slip operatives into Europe and the United States. … 

The director of Homeland Security had no answer when asked if the “vetting” process amounted to anything more than asking refugees to fill out an application, asking them a few questions in a verbal interview, and assuming they answer honestly….

FBI Director James Comey famously admitted last month that the U.S. government has no real way to conduct background checks on refugees.”

A substantial majority of American voters oppose the administration’s plan to accept Syrian refugees, at least under the current process. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill requiring that:

… the heads of the FBI, Homeland Security Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence certify that each refugee being admitted would not pose a threat.

It would be nice to have our security agencies accept some accountability for, well,  national security. The House bill would put the ball in their court with respect to high-risk refugees.

I concur with the general position of Libertarians who support a more open U.S. immigration policy and acceptance of refugees. I also believe that private sponsorship of refugees should be legalized in the U.S. to reduce their fiscal impact. And I believe we should welcome Syrian refugees provided that they can be thoroughly vetted. In the parlance of economics, transacting with refugees may involve severely asymmetric information. It is not advisable to make risky “trades” when due diligence is impossible. Short-cuts in the vetting process do not help to assure a mutually beneficial outcome. We must therefore temper our humanitarian impulse. Under the present circumstances, including an acceptance of terrorism by a “nontrivial minority” of Muslins, it is reasonable to proceed with caution, and only with caution.