This Thanksgiving, Start a Debate About Refugees

November 25, 2015

Why am I interrupting your Thanksgiving to talk about the refugee issue that has seized our political debate across the country? I am shaken by the idea of Americans gaining a false sense of security based on the marginalization of those I went into national security to aid and a mistrust of those I’ve served with in the national security enterprise. I know many others in this profession have similar views and have been speaking up. You can too — and I want to help you do it.

I recognize how unappetizing this sounds. As a defense wonk, you are familiar with the ritual of gathering with family to feast, give thanks, and resign yourself to being quizzed or confronted by loved ones on all matters of national security. Because you have served in the military, you must have inside information on every last terrorist threat. Because you worked overseas, you can offer a risk assessment of your sister’s next vacation spot. However deservedly, they seek your perspective (if only to debate). This year, you should start the conversation.

Maybe your dinner discussion will be thoughtful and reasoned — I certainly hope it will. But if that is not the case, consider that we are knee-deep in political primary season, and, in parallel, at a critical juncture in the nation’s (increasingly fearful) perspective of the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Politicians of all stripes are trying to one-up each other in their ability to stand against our nation’s threats. Standing out from the crowd is a must. Playing to fears is a given. Countering ISIL is complicated and does not lend itself to easily political sound bites. What does? “There is no way that we can put any of our people at risk by bringing people in at this point.If I win, they’re going back.” “I don’t trust this administration to effectively vet the people.” “[Muslims] have to be [forced to register].”

This is not political dialogue at its most pragmatic, and is probably just the beginning. When the election is over, the winners will presumably slide into the sobriety of governing. But the hysteria they and their opponents generated among those around your dinner table, or lack of faith in U.S. institutions, may remain. If we accept keeping out Syrian refugees this Thanksgiving, what about next year, or the next?

Fear of ISIL, and whether they can threaten the United States, makes sense. Fear of refugees — parents, children, the terrified and injured — does not, and yet reasonable Americans increasingly fear refugees across the board. I can partially understand why 53 percent of Americans say a flat no to accepting Syrian refugees — it is a simple answer to the dread of a terrorist attack. A different answer — strong vetting systems, the visa waiver program, defending our history of accepting those in need — is more complicated and takes time. This Thursday, around the table with your family and friends, you have that time and can address their concerns up front. And with any luck, they’ll listen — and you just might have more pull with your family than talking heads.

Have another serving of creamed corn (maybe another beer), and I’ll get you started with some basics.

ISIL terrorists will try to sneak in with refugees.

The United States vetting system is robust. Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States. The vetting process is coordinated among the national security elements in government and, at up to two years, it is often criticized for being too lengthy. Of all routes for a terrorist to enter the United States, coming as a refugee makes least sense.

Many refugees are military-aged males.

Actually, over half of current Syrian refugees to the United States are children. Only about two percent are males of “combat age.” The top priority is for those who are “survivors of violence and torture, those with severe medical conditions, and women and children.” And, to appropriate a statement by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, if a heavily vetted “military-age” Syrian male leading his family is trying to enter the United States as a refugee, so what?

Even with stringent vetting, ISIL will still try to infiltrate the United States.

Ok, sure. Maybe they’ll try. But given this extensive concern, it stands to reason that agencies including the National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Department of State — all part of the vetting process — will be watching closely. This will undoubtedly be tough and slow for the analysts and experts involved, as FBI Director Comey and others have previewed, and yes, there will be some highly scrutinized risk. But I know these folks, you know these folks — and we can give them their due.

“We can’t allow anyone in this country that we can’t vet.”

Exactly. And we don’t.

I don’t care if they’re vetted, I’m still concerned about ISIL.

President Obama said it best: “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL. … ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there’s war between Islam and the West, and when you see individuals in positions of responsibility suggesting Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counter-productive.”

We must “do everything possible to prevent terrorists from reaching our shores.”

Yes. Press your elected representatives for a real debate on objectives and means to counter ISIL globally. Terrorist threats against the United States and our allies and partners deserve serious and comprehensive responses (which have fortunately begun to emerge more and more). But stopping the flow of Syrian refugees is not one. Even France, in the wake of the devastating attacks in Paris, remains committed to accepting 30,000 Syrian refugees.

“We must take decisive action to show the American people that we are doing all we can to protect them.”

No disagreement. But the bill passed by the House last week doesn’t actually do much to improve the current system, except to effectively bring it to a halt by requiring clearance of all refugees by the director of the FBI, the director of national intelligence, and the secretary of homeland security. Other vulnerabilities, like the visa waiver program, may merit more attention.

Look what Syrian refugees did in Paris.

Most of the known attackers were French or Belgian, but this investigation continues.

This is not our problem. This is not in our interest. This is not American.

I won’t quote the Statue of Liberty for the millionth time, but America has historically, and to its great benefit, opened its doors to those seeking refuge on our shores, from Albert Einstein to Madeleine Albright to my grandfather. The times when we have not — such as the terrible story of the MS St. Louis, and the estimated 200-plus Jewish refugees turned away from the United States who ultimately perished in World War II — are blights on our national conscience. And thanks, John Oliver, for the reminder that “there was only one time in American history when the fear of refugees wiping everyone out did actually come true … and we’ll be celebrating it on Thursday.”


I know you don’t want Thanksgiving dinner to be a drag. But it’s rare when we have the ability to do something — accept Syrian refugees — that effectively aligns with our interests and values. To do otherwise gives ISIL a victory. Political fearmongering is causing needless stress to Americans and active harm to those in need. Endorsing it shifts our character from President Reagan’s global “beacon … for all pilgrims” to a declaration that there is “no room at the inn.” When the election is done, when ISIL is defeated, these ill effects will remain, unless we stop them now.

For my part, when I listen to others talk so casually about turning away Syrian refugees behind the shield of national security, I can only think of this baby. And this one. And the thousands behind them. And how terrified their parents have been over the last four years. And what my own baby — warm, dry, and well-fed — will think in 20 years when he realizes that we, as a country, allowed overblown fears to prevent us from offering shelter to those in fear for their lives.

This Thursday, as we observe a national day of Thanksgiving, consider raising this issue with your family. If we speak up, perhaps many more Syrian families will be able to join us in this tradition next year.


Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  Ms. Schulman left the White House in 2014 after serving as Senior Advisor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice.  She has also worked as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Director for Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council Staff, and as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.


Correction: This article originally stated that about 25% of Syrian refugees coming to the United States are over the age of 60. This was the figure initially provided by the U.S. State Department however they later corrected themselves, stating that the actual percentage is 2.5. Thank you to one of our readers for pointing this out in the comments section. We have corrected the article by removing the reference to the percentage over the age of 60. All of the other figures are accurate according to U.S. government sources.