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No Refugees? That’s Un-American

No Refugees? That’s Un-American:  Unidentified child at a syrian refugee camp / © Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Corbis

Unidentified child at a syrian refugee camp / © Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Corbis

Editor’s Note: This article originally was published on Nov. 23, 2015.

Even 4-year-old Syrian orphans are too dangerous to welcome to the United States, says New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. What sort of man turns away desperate orphans out of fear? Christie’s words and actions are shameful and unbecoming of a great nation—as are those of 25 other governors who said they will work to keep Syrian refugees from moving to their state. Is America no longer the home of the brave?

Since 9/11 we have been told many times that our nation is at war. Our troops understand, and they have fought bravely whenever and wherever they have been called upon. Not once have they backed down or refused the call. Yet, when faced with the risk of orphan refugees, some of our leaders protest that the risk is too great. How can we ask so much of our troops but so little of ourselves?

Other countries have stepped up. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have taken in millions of refugees. Germany has welcomed close to 100,000, Australia 12,000 and Canada 10,000 refugees. Many of us were appalled when we saw a Hungarian camerawoman kick a migrant child trying to cross the Hungarian-Serbian border.

Yet Hungary has accepted 18,800 refugees, far more than the United States, which has to date accepted only about 1,800 refugees. Even tiny Denmark, with less than 1/50th the population of the United States, has welcomed nearly ten times as many refugees as has the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Are Americans less brave than the Canadians? Are we less generous than the Danes?

The United States has a long history of welcoming refugees. When hundreds of thousands of people fled the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, many of them found their homes in the United States. We also welcomed Poles, Cubans and Koreans fleeing communist oppression. In the year following the fall of Saigon we welcomed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who today are proud to call the United States their home.

We have also made mistakes.

In a fit of hysteria the United States turned away Jewish children seeking refuge from Hitler in the 1930s, consigning many to the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Ebensee. We also unjustly and unwisely interned Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. But let us learn from our mistakes and draw strength and inspiration from the chapters in our history of which we can be justly proud.

Fear of refugees is as unwarranted as it is unbecoming. The displaced people who Gov. Christie fears are innocent victims fleeing our common enemy. They understand better than most the evil and brutality of ISIS and the authoritarian Assad regime. When the Hungarians fled the Soviet invaders, the United States was in the grips of the Red Scare, and some worried that communist infiltrators would hide among the refugees. But we didn’t allow our fear to overcome our reason or our compassion.

Then, as now, such fears were overblown. Refugees to the United States are vetted with extensive and grueling background checks that can take several years to complete. It’s much easier for people bent on destruction to simply to visit the United States as tourists than to hide among the refugees like wolves in sheep’s clothing. We are at war and may be attacked, but we cannot defend ourselves with irrational fears of a red under every bed.

We also have much to gain from refugees. Andras Grof was one of the Hungarians who fled Soviet tanks in 1956. He later changed his name to Andrew Grove, and as CEO of Intel he became one of the legendary innovators of Silicon Valley. You can’t get more American than that. Immigrants have helped to make the U.S. economy the most dynamic and admired in the world. The United States can easily take in more refugees than we are now admitting without suffering economic problems. Indeed, far from being hurt by the influx of millions of refugees, the Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian economies are growing.

Welcoming more refugees is not only an act of compassion, it’s also good foreign policy. The fear that ISIS is trying to instill in the West is not simply a fear of ISIS but a fear of all Muslims. The tiny terror cult believes that by driving a wedge between Muslims and the West it will convince the world that it represents all Muslims. When politicians like Gov. Christie brand an orphan Muslim child as an object to be feared, they are helping to spread the message that ISIS wants to be heard. Welcoming Syrian refugees strikes a blow against the barbaric caliphate in Raqqa by uniting us all in common cause against our true enemy.

The United States has a proud record as an open and welcoming society. It is part of our national creed that anyone can become an American. Time and time again we have proved that true. We must resist the dark impulses of paranoia and fear, and instead welcome those fleeing oppression throughout the world. We call the United States the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s make sure those are not merely words.


Alex Tabarrok is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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