Relating the Syrian Refugee Crisis To Iowa

Posted: November 30, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: Blog

The Paris attacks provided a unfortunate and tragic reminder that the goal of a terrorism-free world is still far off, if not unachievable. As a result, terrorism and national security have jumped to the top of the list of issues facing the presidential candidates as the caucuses rapidly approach. Part of that national-security discussion has revolved around whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees.

Even überinsulated smack-dab in the middle of the U.S., Iowa plays a role in the refugee debate. While the Hawkeye State has yet to accept any Syrian refugees, it has welcomed refugees from Southeast Asia, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, Africa and now, yes, the Middle East. This is the point where I’m going to be sure to identify the difference between an immigrant and a refugee, per the Iowa Department of Human Services:

Refugees are persons who have fled their country or origin due to fear of persecution. Immigrants are persons who voluntarily leave their country of origin for any number of reasons.

So let’s be clear: Most Syrian refugees are fleeing their country because they fear persecution or death at the hands of ISIS or the country’s ongoing civil war. They are not leaving simply for a change of scenery.

Currently, just shy of 1,900 Syrian refugees have been allowed into the United States since 2012. They’ve been relocated to cities throughout the United States with Rock Island, Illinois, being the closest site to Iowa. Nonetheless, Gov. Terry Branstad, along with 29 other governors across the country, said he does not want the federal government relocated refugees in his state. Branstad cited the safety of Iowans as his primary reason for barring entry.

The safety concern was spurred by the discovery that one of the Paris attackers posed as a Syrian refugee, complete with a fake Syrian passport, to get into Western Europe. A similar scenario happening in the United States — having a terrorist slip through the cracks and gain admittance into the United States only to commit an unspeakable atrocity — isn’t hard to imagine. Even separate from the refugee debate, the fear of another attack on U.S. soil occupies the nation’s current consciousness. Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio ominously fuels that fear in his first TV ad, saying, “What happened in Paris could happen here.”

It’s those kind of statements that help lead to these types of results:

Most of the Republican field agrees with that 53 percent (although Rubio has since adjusted his stance). In Iowa, voters will likely be split on the issue as well. It’s certainly a debate that requires deep thought. On one hand, is it acceptable to close our borders to thousands of people in desperate need? Shouldn’t we do what we can to help? But on the other, do we put the U.S. population at risk by letting in Syrian refugees when one of them could fool the screening process and kill Americans?  Aren’t we better safe than sorry?

All three Democratic candidates support refugee relocation in the U.S. The concern over vetting the refugees is why several of the Republicans oppose allowing settlement. The process, which usually takes at least 18 months, is even more intensive when it comes to Syrians applying for refugee status. They first have to pass through the United Nation Commissioner for Refugees’ vetting process before they are even referred to the United States. When a refugee is referred to the U.S., our tax dollars go to work. The State and Defense departments, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI all collaborate vet a single refugee. Just over 50 percent pass the screening process. So far, only two of the 750,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. since 9/11 have been implicated in any sort of terrorist activity.

President Barack Obama plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, but even members of his own administration have their doubts about the thoroughness of the screening process, i.e. it’s hard to adequately background-check a person from a devastated third-world country that has few means of tracking its citizens. It’s also not hard to envision a situation where administration officials, under pressure to process many refugee applicants in a short amount of time, aren’t as complete in their vetting as they could be.

For now, there have been no Syrian refugees placed in Iowa. Will that change? With Obama’s goal of 10,000 admitted refugees in the next year, probably. And it’s unclear what authority governors like Branstad have in refusing to accept Syrian refugees. As stated in this Politico story, they might not have any:

Potentially blunting the rhetoric coming from the Republican governors, Greg Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told POLITICO states have no authority to bar people given refugee status from entering their states. Once admitted as a refugee, Chen said, they have the right to travel the country freely. “It would be positively un-American for a state to set up roadblocks or screening procedures at airports to block refugees from a certain country from entering,” he said. “The civil rights era stopped that kind of discrimination 50 years ago.”

In the past, Iowa has used its first-in-the-nation billing to bring issues important within the state onto the national stage (*cough* ethanol). This time, it’s reversed. When Iowans go to caucus on Feb. 1, national security will be the issue at the forefront of many minds. This is one of the few things on which Rep. Steve King and I agree. By extension, the refugee crisis will also come into play. Some voters will caucus for a particular candidate solely based on his or her stance on whether to accept Syrian refugees. With nine weeks until the caucuses, the candidates still have time to shape the refugee debate.


IMG_1208Cannon is a senior journalism and political science major from Kansas City. He interned this summer at the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S., The Hartford Courant, and he cares too much about the World Champion Kansas City Royals. Follow him on Twitter.