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How To Thread The Needle On Syrian Refugees


Donald Trump has called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Other presidential candidates then swiftly denounced his statement, as they should.

Trump’s position should not, however, be conflated with the argument that it is prudent for the United States to put a pause on or slow down relocating 10,000 or more Syrian refugees to the United States.

The Syrian refugee issue has often been presented in the form of a mischaracterization of the two major camps, and it has two versions. For those who support the plan to welcome the 10,000 Syrian refugees to America, the choices are simple: Either you are a decent human being with compassion, or you are overly fearful at best and a xenophobic racist at worst. Admittedly, Trump doesn’t help dispel the latter characterization.

Those who want to stop the refugee program present the options this way: Either you are a reasonable person who understands the security risks, or you are dangerously naïve at best and at worst perhaps even morally culpable should there be another attack. Hillary Clinton, who has argued for increasing the number of Syrian refugees to 65,000 and downplayed security challenges, doesn’t help dispel that characterization. Both sides call into question the patriotism of the other.

But is it possible to be reasonable, security-minded, just, patriotic, and compassionate towards those seeking a life away from the terror? Yes, I think it is.

Remember How We Got Here

First, a recap is necessary. Over the last several years, Syria has descended into nightmarish chaos. Among those fighting for control of Syria’s future is Bashar al-Assad, a brutal authoritarian who is not squeamish about using chemical weapons against civilians. There is the Islamic State, known for its brutality and imperialistic ambitions to force conversions to its particular brand of Sunni Islam and establish an Islamic caliphate. Then there are many different rebel groups who are against both the Assad regime and the Islamic State, although none of them are liberal democratic groups.

Half of the Syrian population is displaced and more than 4 million have filed with the United Nations for refugee status.

Out of these factions, half of the Syrian population is displaced and more than 4 million have filed with the United Nations for refugee status. They don’t want any part of the violent chaos in their country and believe, rightly so, that they and their families are at a high risk of being slaughtered by any number of clashing forces. But even among those fleeing remain sympathies towards Islamist totalitarianism.

Since 2011, refugees have fled to Europe, more than1,500 have successfully made it through the refugee screening program to the United States, and many have perished in the course of their harrowing voyage.

This brings us to the current public policy debate. On November 13, 2015, ISIS fighters claimed the lives of 129 unsuspecting men, women, and children in Paris, France. There is mounting evidence the attackers had some connection to Syria.

A Bloomberg poll showed that since this brutal act of war, more than half of Americans do not support bringing in more Syrian refugees, for fear that members of ISIS will exploit the goodwill of Americans and infiltrate.

Compassion Doesn’t Mean Enabling Slaughter

Many Christian authors writing for Christian audiences have supported bringing in the refugees either explicitly or implicitly by citing Scripture about loving and caring for our neighbors and not fearing. So is this an open and closed case for civic-minded Christians? Have mercy and fear not? No, it isn’t.

Is this an open and closed case for civic-minded Christians? Have mercy and fear not? No.

First, there are other Christian principles at play—justice and wisdom, for example. As succinctly stated by Mark Tooley in National Review Online, “There is no love, from a Christian stance, in permitting anyone to continue to destroy innocents.” And “No nation is morally obliged to resettle large numbers of immigrants who might unsettle that nation’s political and cultural life.”

How Christians ought to participate in government is a subject that deserves its own attention, but instead I will simply recommend a book—Robert Benne’s imperfect but useful book called “Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics.” One of his key points is that there are few clear trajectories from what he calls the “Christian core” and public policy.

So, for instance, take the issue of poverty. While all Christians must have compassion for those in poverty, regardless of how they got there, there is no clear trajectory from that to a public policy position. One Christian might take the position that government should tax wealthier citizens to distribute directly to those who are below a certain income level, while another Christian might believe that coercive redistribution is unjust, does more harm than good, and the problem is best left to volunteer associations. The latter, in my view, has a stronger argument; nonetheless, there is room for pious Christians to disagree.

Americans Are Already Helping a Lot

On the Syrian refugee matter, it is certainly true that Christians, and really all decent Americans of goodwill, should have compassion for those suffering, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, and a general posture of hospitality towards those who appreciate that the best place to live in peace and practice one’s faith is in the United States of America.

The real question is to what degree we help, and if it makes sense for the United States to bring some, if any more, here. A little-discussed fact is that Americans are right now providing a massive amount of humanitarian assistance to the refugees. According to testimony from Anne C. Richard, the assistant secretary for the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration:

[T]he U.S. Government is the leading donor of humanitarian assistance to people in need inside Syria, in the surrounding countries, and to others caught up in crises around the world. Through contributions to international organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Program, UNICEF and leading nongovernmental organizations, U.S. funds are being used to save millions of lives. U.S. humanitarian assistance in response to the Syrian conflict totals more than $4.5 billion since the start of the crisis and is made possible thanks to strong bipartisan support from Congress. Without U.S. support, more people would be making the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean/to Europe. This assistance provides life-saving support– including food, water, shelter, medical care and warm clothing– to people in all 14 governorates of Syria, and to refugees and host communities in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. It reaches approximately 5 million Syrians each month. Where hospitals are barrel bombed, our assistance allows medical teams to provide life-saving care. More than 6 million patients have received treatment in more than 140 U.S.-supported hospitals and clinics across Syria. We have repaired water and sanitation facilities, providing access to clean water for 1.3 million people across Syria.

She goes on to describe the needs that remain. But that is quite a bit of compassion, is it not?

Mind the Practicalities of Resettling Syrian Refugees

Much has already been written elsewhere about the layers of screening already built into the American refugee program. According to President Obama’s own senior officials, however, there are real concerns about Islamist groups from war-torn Syria infiltrating the refugee system. Moreover, that the current administration seems unable to identify the cause of the terrorist threat as militant Islamism should make Americans suspicious that it can screen out terrorists or sympathetic Muslims who are ripe for radicalization.

According to President Obama’s own senior officials, there are real concerns about Islamist groups from war-torn Syria infiltrating the refugee system.

Still, it’s likely the current system, even with its imperfections, can take in a small number of additional refugees, but it probably means no military-aged single men ought to be included. (To my mind, the refugees themselves are unlikely to pose the greatest immediate threat; it is the problem of isolated, non-integrated communities relocated from Islamist war zones that are sympathetic to living under Sharia law that pose a long-term problem.)

But the United States cannot take in every person who wants to be here, nor can we intervene in every conflict across the globe. There are real limits, and humanitarianism is not by itself a compelling reason for government to act.

The clearest action the nation should take is to destroy ISIS and Assad, and to try, with our Arab allies especially, to bring order to the chaos. The United States should also continue to support the work of refugee camps and aid to those displaced, both because it is the right thing to do and because it could go a long way in ensuring those same people return to their country one day pro-Western and not the opposite.

If Americans feel compelled to do more, I recommend reaching out to private organizations doing wonderful meaningful work. My two favorites are Samaritan’s Purse and the International Missions Board.

In the meantime, let us resolve to cut our fellow citizens some slack and actually try to persuade one another of the best course of action. This will require an appreciation of nuance, and a large measure of skepticism towards presidential candidates who don’t.