The ‘Intentions’ Fallacy

I promised myself that being snowed in this weekend, and starting a new class on refugees and forced migration, I would make a point to jump start this blog again.  Especially now, because the last two years have seen a nearly 20% increase in refugees,  the dramatic influx of Syrians and Afghans to Europe, and a backlash against refugees and refugee humanitarian policy.  There’s no shortage of things to write about – I could write a new entry with every tragedy in the Mediterranean – but for personal reasons I haven’t been able to.  Well, New Year and new outrages, so let’s begin.

Being American, I first want to start with Gov. Nikki Haley’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, which repeats and amplifies the same mistaken views about who refugees are and how they differ from other immigrants.  Once again, the double-speak of those opposed to refugees gets the policy issues completely backwards.  She says,

“No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.

“At the same time, that does not mean we just flat out open our borders. We can’t do that. We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally. And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined.

“We must fix our broken immigration system. That means stopping illegal immigration. And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion. Just like we have for centuries.

“I have no doubt that if we act with proper focus, we can protect our borders, our sovereignty and our citizens, all while remaining true to America’s noblest legacies.”

What is mistaken here is that it is precisely refugee admissions who are, of all immigrants, the ones whose intentions are the most easily determined.  In the case of Syrians, they are trying to get away from the same persecutors that the U.S. is fighting on the battlefield.  By definition, refugees’ intentions are to escape from persecution and find freedom and asylum, and while no system of interrogation and investigation is airtight, we have a better sense of why refugees would come to this country than anyone else would.  Ironically, it’s the “properly vetted legal immigrants” whose intentions are less certain, because they can be coming for work, to make money, to join families, any number of reasons.  As anyone who has worked in refugee resettlement knows, though, refugees are more vetted than any other population.  And since they are more likely to have risked their lives to get to a new country, coming as a refugee is the least efficient way of trying to infiltrate a country.  That’s just logic.

The other irony in her speech is that, if anything, “America’s noblest legacy” is its welcoming of refugees from persecution, originally religious, but expanding to other categories.  No country on Earth has resettled more refugees, and no country has naturalized more (meaning, given them full citizenship).  While a few other countries accept more on a per capita basis, sometimes, in absolute numbers no country has taken in more than the U.S.  Would we rather think of ourselves as a country that welcomes and absorbs those fleeing for their lives and seeking freedom, or a country that is interested in those who want to come and get rich?

So her binary opposition – and I can’t even say the Republicans’, because as we know at the same time the Republicans had a Spanish-language response delivered by a Cuban-American congressman that was more pro-immigrant – between refugees as shadowy arrivals whose intentions are unclear vs. well-vetted immigrants who are ready to, presumably, jump in and start earning money, gets it all wrong when it comes to how stringent the vetting process is.  (Not to mention anyone who arrives without papers or overstays the visa, since that makes them, in her eyes, automatically suspect.)  That’s not an ideological interpretation, it’s a factual statement of how the visa admissions process works.  Refugees are entitled to more protection, not more suspicion, but to get that protection, they already face more scrutiny.  And that also slows down the process for those fleeing for their lives.

I’ll stop there for now, and return later to talk about the Obama Administration and the latest wave of refugees from Central America.  But before that I have to address the latest openly anti-refugee law from Denmark.

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Filed under Afghans, Policy, Syrians, U.S.

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