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Those celebrating Thanksgiving in the US should take a moment to reflect on the holiday’s origins: on the pilgrims who found sanctuary here from religious persecution. Dinner table discussion topic: Would the refugees of 1620 be welcome in the United States of 2017?  

A family sits on the shore of the Greek island of Lesbos wrapped in thermal blankets after journeying from Turkey aboard a rubber boat. October 11, 2015. © 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

During the third presidential debate, then-candidate Donald Trump said that President Obama’s admission of Syrian refugees was a “great Trojan horse” and his son, Donald Jr, underscored the vilification of refugees by comparing them to a poisoned Skittle in the candy jar. During the campaign, candidate Trump also repeatedly exaggerated the number of Syrian refugees that President Obama had actually admitted to the United States: Trump said 200,000; the number was 12,587 in FY 2016; 1,682 in FY 2015; 105 in FY 2014, and 36, 31, and 29 in the years FY 2013, 2012, and 2011--a total of 14,470 during a period of warfare in Syria that produced nearly 5 million refugees.

President-elect Trump’s “100-day action plan to make America great again” calls for suspending immigration from “terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur.” He appears set to consider many countries that produce large numbers of refugees—like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—to be terror prone. This, of course, begs the question about protecting the people from such regions who resist and flee terror. It raises the prospect that the US refugee resettlement program—not just for Syrian refugees—could be reduced to next to nothing.

The US refugee resettlement program exists, in part, because of the failure of the United States to do more to save refugees from Nazi Germany, many of whom were ostensibly refused because they could not be properly vetted. Since the end of World War II the US resettlement program has managed to rescue hundreds of thousands refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, from Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia, and from Iran. Those admitted were properly vetted—despite barriers to information in their home countries—through extensive interviews while in their countries of first arrival and thorough cross-checking with other sources of information.

And the US can do the same today.

Why is that? Because Syrians and other refugees who cannot be vetted do not get into the United States. Period. And those who are admitted go through the most intensive scrutiny of the 181 million visitors and immigrants who enter the United States in a year. 

Unlike for Europe, where refugees have already crossed borders and are now seeking asylum, the US refugee admissions process takes about two years, on average, and that is often after the refugees have spent many years in camps. Before a refugee comes to the attention of the United States, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) conducts its own thorough refugee status determination, which excludes anyone suspected of serious criminality. Only 1 percent of refugees are ever resettled. And those lucky few do not choose their country of resettlement. UNHCR makes that choice. It is well aware of the stringent US security requirements and priorities, and only refers refugees who it believes match those criteria.

For the small fraction of Syrian refugees who do receive UNHCR referrals to the United States, their resettlement journey is far from over. The US vetting process involves not only extensive investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, but also by the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and other agencies. The refugee undergoes multiple and overlapping interviews and processing hurdles, biometric INTERPOL checks, as well as medical exams. The slightest cause for concern can stop the process in its tracks.

Refugees have been denied entry on terrorism-related grounds as attenuated as working at a food stand in a terrorist-controlled city. Frankly, there are far easier and more direct ways for terrorists to enter the United States—as demonstrated by the 9/11 hijackers. And many of the mass atrocity acts in the United States have been perpetrated by US-born American citizens—of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

No system is 100 percent free of risk. But Trump’s scare-mongering on refugees is out of all proportion to reality: of the nearly 800,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since September 11, 2001, three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities.

President-elect Trump should weigh the actual risk that refugees would harm Americans against the benefits US leadership in refugee resettlement brings. Resettling refugees enhances global security. It shows support for many countries allied with the United States that are on the front lines of refugee exoduses and have huge refugee populations, like Jordan, Kenya, and Thailand. And it demonstrates to the world—including the likes of ISIS—that the United States has the strength to show compassion over fear.

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