The Refugee Issue

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you who live in the U.S. (definitely including those holding one of the alphabet soup of visa types).

I’ve been meaning to write here my thoughts on the recent actions by some state governors and the U.S. House to keep out (or, greatly slow down the entry of) the Syrian refugees. President Obama bitterly lashed out against the governors’ and congresspeople’s actions, saying that such policies would represent the loss of precious American values. Thanksgiving Day would seem to be an appropriate time for me to comment.

I must state ahead of time that I side with our president on this issue. We should take the refugees, and yes, this is a deeply ingrained part of our national culture. But it’s not that simple.

As with any controversial issue, what frustrates me most is lack of clear thinking, usually on both sides. The refugee issue is no exception. There is a lot of weak thinking in this debate.

The November 21 edition of The Economist, for instance, has an inset box, labeled Providing Context, in which it compares the results of current opinion polls on the Syrian refugees with a 1939 poll in which most respondents opposed accepting Jewish refugees from Germany. This isn’t “context” at all; there weren’t Jews committing terrorist acts, while now there are Arabs and Muslims of various nationalities who are doing so — a very small number, to be sure, but certainly enough to make the two polls far from comparable.

Other commenters have reasurred us that all those involved in the recent Paris bombings were European citizens, not Syrian refugees. That’s like saying that the Tsarnaev brothers, perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings, didn’t come from Syria. Terrorist organizations have found fertile recruiting among Arabs and Muslims  all over the world.

The best argument in favor of taking the Syrian refugees, in addition to the point about this being a key part of our culture, is the obvious one: Only a tiny, tiny percentage of immigrants from Arab or Muslim areas become Abdelhamid Abaaouds or Tamerlan Tsarnaevs. We shouldn’t give up our ideals to keep out the many in order to exclude the tiny number of horrific exceptions.

That is my point of view. About a half mile from my home, there is “church row,” with one mainstream Episcopalian church, two Chinese Christian churches (one Hong Kong, one Taiwan), and, starting about a year ago, a Muslim mosque (which replaced the Korean Christian church). I welcome the mosque, and am pleased that they chose my city for its location. There are of course numerous other religious establishments in my city of 67,000, but this is the first one I’ve seen for Islam.

I could continue my theme in the last paragraph at length, but let me turn now to the other side: President Obama, The Economist and so on are refusing to face the larger question — what happens if and when there are more and more Tsarnaev/Abbaoud incidents? There must be a point at which the balance between ideals and security shifts toward the latter. Obama’s absolutist convictions, while certainly sincere, are naive (or perhaps deliberately oversimplified).

Perhaps there are interventions, such as providing job training for disaffected youth, that may reduce the danger of people in such communities finding the terrorist philosophy so attractive. So, there might be middle grounds, but these are just hypothetical for now.

I was rather irritated to see the pundits in the mainstream media expressing shock at the fact that a number of House Democrats voted to stop the Syrian refugees. Do these journalists really think that that vote was irrational, even bigoted?

Similarly, after 9/11, California Senator Dianne Feinstein — a Democrat — stated publicly that “Middle Eastern-looking” people be given extra scrutiny at airports. When I mentioned that a couple of years later to one of my fellow liberals, he refused to believe it. I had to send him the link to the San Francisco Chronicle article in which Feinstein had been quoted before he would believe that Feinstein would say such a thing.

Let’s keep our ideals, but not resort to slogans and sloppy thinking. The world has changed, due not only to technology but also immigration policies, such as the almost borderless situation within Europe. Policies need to be set based on, yes, ideals, but also realistic appraisal of the issues.

My 2 cents’ worth.



24 thoughts on “The Refugee Issue

  1. There is nothing wrong or contrary to USA principles in investigating visa applicants, and rejecting those to have a habit or predilection of initiating force or fraud.

    I groan when reading testimony of so-called authorities saying, “but they’re not in any data-base to which we have access”, as if data-bases were the whole story or even a significant part of the story. People should, in general, not be in data-bases. Out of some 7G people in the world, no one should be able to find anything about 6.99996G of them by wading through a thousand data-bases. This is why I loath Google, FB, Yahoo, Oracle, IBM, and nearly every scofflaw state college and university far beyond the matter of H-1B visa abuse.

    And for the same reason, I think the visa waiver programs are simply insane. Just because someone is a citizen of the U.K. Says nothing about his likelihood of initiating force or fraud.

    In this case, we do have the example of our own history since colonial times, and we have the Euroasian history of millennia of migrations and invasions, and we have the history of the post-WW2 era. We say the Soviet spies and operatives since late 1944 (and converts and operatives traveling back and forth since 1917). We’ve seen the ghettos, a.k.a. no go zones, and the incessant initiations of force since at least 1946.

    In this case we have no idea where they’re really from, how many or which ones are simple criminals, terrorists, spies, operatives, or honest, peaceful, productive, creative people. And the USA government has idiotically/diabolically announced that they refuse to make a serious attempt to find out, refuse to fence USA borders, refuse to check returning and incoming individuals for communicable diseases, refuse to make a serious effort to repel invaders, refuse to make a serious effort to track visa holders closely enough to find and remove them within a few days of their visa expirations.

    I’m shocked that more than 5 of the 535 in congress would vote against reasonable precautions rather than shoving their heads in the sand…or some other similarly dark place, throwing their ha ponds in the air and totally abandoning any notion of national integrity and security. Would it be difficult, what with their insane recent habit of blithely admitting millions each year? Yes. So, stop admitting millions each year, giving out about a million green cards, almost as many invaders, hundreds of thousands of student visas, 160K H-1B visas…each year. Cut those numbers back to properly/reasonable levels that stop driving over-crowding and over-population. “But jgo, then Socialist Insecurity, Medicaid, Medicare would be unsupportable. We wouldn’t have enough young, healthy people to support the older, less healthy, less productive people.” Yes, those unconstitutional scams were never actuarial lay sound. We knew that back in 1935. But utopian fictions die hard. Best to end them in an honest, least painful manner than keep piling on new forms of abuse.


  2. “sloppy thinking” ?
    Sloppy thinking or “the art of obfuscation”?
    Where in the United States are rents going down and salaries going up?
    Where in the United States is health care being under-utilized and available to all?
    Where are universities that are plenty with open seats for american kids?
    Where are there quality jobs going begging in our glorious globalized reality?
    I fear sometimes that people playing both sides of the fence on this issue when it is convenient can somehow make the issue less visceral for those reading this blog.


      • When people say its ok for ‘some’ to come in I start to ask what possible reason would they have for not recognizing that we have been refugee’d,guest worker’d and illegal’d to the point of economic and social exhaustion.
        The sloppy thinking is from those that believe that at this point in American history, and in that context, that we need any more immigration for any reason no matter who loses their power and position supporting and depending on that immigrant supply no matter how small or specialized the reasoning for that ‘allowance’ .
        In other words, I suspect that those that depend on those allowances are a inevitably part of the original problem.
        The iron rule can be applied to any compassionate argument.


      • @matloff November 27, 2015 at 7:27 am: ‘I do believe that most of the people expressing fallacious ideas are doing so sincerely.’

        The truth value of your claim depends on the context in which you use ‘most’. If your context is such that you mean “most Americans expressing fallacies,” then you’re probably correct.

        But if you mean “most talking heads in the US corporate-funded media” (e.g., journalists, politicians, pundits), you’re probably wrong. When the latter say, e.g., that the US must continue to allow mass immigration at something like current levels because “we always have in the past,” they might *possibly* be ignorant of the quantitative facts (e.g., the legislation-driven decline in immigrant share of total US population from ~15% in 1910 to ~5% in 1970) … but I doubt it. OTOH, I have *no* doubt that these propagandists are *completely* aware of the fallacy of implying that, e.g., because mass immigration has not been harmful in the past, it cannot therefore be harmful in the future. The obvious parallels to anthropogenic climate change (“we’ve been burning fossil fuels in quantity for 200 years, so why can’t we keep doing that?”) or species extinction (“we’ve been shooting passenger pigeons for 100 years, and there’s still plenty of them!”) are too obvious even to them. The surest sign that “they know what they’re doing”: the most competent propagandists are quite careful not to make such arguments explicitly … at least not where they can be quoted.

        Their meaning is however sufficiently clear that their implications communicate to many credulous Americans, who go on to express the fallacies directly. Which is why the propagandists get paid.


  3. Apparently no visa or other vetting is required for EU citizens coming to the US. The perpetrators of the Paris attacks could have as easily come to the US. The US and EU could start with policies to better vet movement of suspicious individuals. But then we get into the issue of infringement of civil liberties. Any policy will come under fire if it fails to prevent an attack, or can be blamed for an attack. We can do our best balancing act between security and ideals in the short term. But we need to create a less vulnerable egalitarian world society in the long run. Neither is easy.


    • There is some pre-travel “vetting”, even in visa waiver cases, but it seems designed to be ineffective.

      Mostly, it’s designed to be convenient, quick and cheap.

      If someone wants to game the system it is easy to do so, but those who keep their noses clean go through a small bit of hassle. I’ve known grad students from around the world, a few L-1 guest-workers, a very few H-1B guest-workers, a couple exchange students, a few dozens of immigrants, and a very few US citizens who like to travel, or do so as part of their jobs, or who participated in “study abroad” programs. One relative used to bring plane-loads of college students from Japan to tour US universities to choose grad schools, and that is how I began to be aware of the scale, the numbers of people involved.


  4. Couldn’t agree more as the Displaced American who can not buy an interview.
    But there is one thing I must add.

    We are American citizens.
    This is America

    We must provide for the American citizens first and by that I mean jobs so that they can provide for their families.

    Once we achieve that, then I wholeheartedly agree with this.

    That said, bringing in non immigrant visa holders to displace Americans is NOT immigration in any way,shape, or form.

    It simply is the same tactics that were used in generations past to break union picket lines.


    • This dynamic between the “1%” types who believe in winner take all and that Adam Smith could do no wrong and every body else who would like a decent cut of the pie has been a fundamental driver in our American history. This is just one more chapter.


  5. @matloff November 26, 2015: “We should take [some Syrian] refugees”

    Agreed, except that …

    @matloff November 26, 2015: ‘lack of clear thinking, usually on both sides.’

    … there are (as usual) more than 2 sides to this debate. I hope someday to write about this at length, but for now suffice to say that, just as more than one dimension is required to appropriately model the exercise of power[1], models of US politics are generally crippled by the dominant one-dimensional “left vs right” analytic. Particularly, the dominant model is used (usually via the US corporate-funded media) to engineer “compromises” which (oddly enough 🙂 consistently favor the interests of US elites. WRT to Syrian refugee immigration:

    One party to this debate is the xenophobes: more generally, social conservatives (notably regarding “diversity”) who are more economically progressive (i.e., favoring governmental action that effectively redistributes income and wealth downward, at least when polled) than the USCFM would have one believe. As previously suggested[2], the xenophobes are natural allies for those of us who favor restricting the mass import of {labor supply, housing demand} simply because they are a large, powerful group. Unfortunately their motivations for this position are mostly contemptible (and certainly too nauseating to detail here); furthermore they are overly prone to jettison their opposition to mass immigration when offered minor (and usually temporary) concessions on “social issues.”

    Another party is the liberals: social progressives who regularly proclaim their economic progressivism, but who jettison it regularly to do deals with (and effectively support the interests and policy preferences of) the 1%. Most notably for this forum, liberals generally support the mass import of {labor supply, housing demand} (whether legal or not) as advancing social diversity and tolerance, despite harm to specific sectors (e.g., IT and STEM workers) and the lower end of the income and wealth distributions (who suffer most from illegal migration) more generally. Most notably for this issue, liberals fail to recognize that (c.p.) citizens of nations that are saturated with economic migrants will tend to be more hostile to *all* migrants, including refugees.

    Probably the most powerful party in this debate (though they can certainly be defeated) is the US 1%, who are overwhelmingly both socially progressive (as anyone who has worked in most large US corporations has likely observed) and economically retrogressive (i.e., favoring governmental action to redistribute income and wealth upward despite increasing concentration). In this case, they take the “correct” (IMHO) policy position (allowing substantial numbers of Syrian refugees) but for the wrong reasons: the US 1% currently always favors increasing immigration (since the 1% benefits most directly from increasing {labor supply, housing demand}), except when *absolutely* necessary to keep their right-wing allies (who are mostly xenophobes) onside[3].

    My position is grounded in *both* social and economic progressivism: US communities should allow resettlement of large numbers of properly-vetted Syrian refugees

    * only in tandem with substantial efforts to increase affordable housing and low-income jobs. We cannot once again distribute the costs of migration policy disproportionately onto our poorest citizens and legal migrants. Fortunately many of the Syrians are skilled, which may allow them to compete for jobs and housing with more middle-class Americans; unfortunately (as residents of major US cities know) many skilled immigrants get restricted to low-end labor. One way to accomplish this policy goal is to increase efforts to deport illegal immigrants, which is the appropriate policy orthogonal to this refugee issue.

    * accepting that the vetting process will unfortunately not be perfect. As usual, it is only necessary that a policy’s benefits outweigh its costs (as with CA Prop 47[4]).

    * preferably in cooperation with a larger, international resettlement effort.

    [3]: I suspect there are exceptions, but none come to mind at the moment saving the caveat above.


    • Forgot to mention a 4th party active in this debate (and exhibiting a ‘lack of clear thinking’): various Abrahamic communities, who often find a scriptural motivation specifically to assist refugees (esp those belonging to their own sects 🙂 This breaks them with xenophobes on this specific question; such religious communities also often break with liberals and the 1% on other social issues. Demonstrating that grounding one’s political committments on statements from ancient texts produces bad outcomes is left as an exercise for the reader 🙂


  6. The question is (as usual for today’s politics) being framed as one of only two extreme possibilities:

    1. Let NOBODY come in.
    2. Let EVERYBODY come in.

    This is foolishness. The solution is to recognize that allowing outsiders to relocate into the U.S. is a *privilege* to be granted, not a *right* to be guaranteed. Privilege implies qualification — some qualify, some do not.

    America, just like any other country on Earth, grants privileges based on qualifications. The privilege of driving comes with a vision test, a written test, and a driving test. Those who cannot pass these tests are not simply given a “waiver” and allowed to endanger the health and safety of others by driving unlicensed due to being unqualified.

    What are the “qualifications” for the privilege of immigration? Consider the process of immigration filtered through Ellis Island.

    Clipped from:

    Health Inspection
    As immigrants filed through Ellis Island’s large registry room, doctors would briefly scan each immigrant for obvious physical or mental health issues. Doctors or nurses used chalk to write letters on an immigrant’s clothes to indicate possible health problems. An “H” indicated a possible heart condition while “LCD” meant loathsome contagious disease. Eventually, these rapid-fire physical health inspections came to be known as “six-second physicals.”

    A Barrage of Questions
    The Immigration Service collected arrival manifests from incoming ships. The manifests contained passenger names as well as answers to several questions. An inspector, usually accompanied by an interpreter, asked each passenger a series of questions about potential destinations and job prospects.

    Detention and Hearings
    If immigrants failed the medical or immigration inspection, they were placed in detention until they could have a hearing in front of the Board of Special Inquiry, composed of inspectors. According to the National Archives at New York City, about 10 percent of immigrants had hearings, where evidence about the immigrant’s medical health, economic conditions and beliefs was provided. Exclusion was often reversed if someone posted bond for an immigrant or an aid society took responsibility for the immigrant. Only about 2 percent of immigrants were deported, usually because they were considered a “likely public charge” on medical or economic grounds.

    Over 98% of immigrants were thus admitted; the 2% who were considered a risk — merely due to increased public expense — were turned away.

    Health, economic viability, and “beliefs” were all considerations. Today’s ease of travel makes it much harder to have a “choke point” such as Ellis Island, but the point is that qualifications have long been a part of the decision on whether or not to admit an outsider. Decisions ought to be made on such an individual basis, not merely on ethnicity or other group status. That is how privileges are to be granted or denied — individually, not en masse.


  7. I think there is absolutely nothing wrong in giving priority to those refugees who have a legitimate fear of religious persecution, and have a case for “asylum” in the traditional sense. However, most of the refugees are Sunni Muslims with no reasonable fear of religious persecution by ISIS (Sunni) or the Damascus government (even though it is Alawite/Shite). Moreover, most of the migrants are middle class (who can afford the journey), and not the most impoverished residents most endangered by the war. These facts are not pointed out clearly enough by the media.


    • @steve66a November 27, 2015 at 6:05 pm: ‘most [Syrian] refugees are Sunni Muslims with no reasonable fear of religious persecution by ISIS (Sunni) or the Damascus government (even though it is Alawite/[Shiite]).’

      That’s just false.

      Firstly, regarding persecution of Sunnis by Daesh[1]: “Sunni” is an adjective covering 1-2 *billion* people with 1500 years of diverse opinions[2], of which Daesh and other Salafis are near one end of a spectrum (or one corner of a multidimensional space) in the same way that, say, Tomás de Torquemada was at one end of a spectrum of Catholic thought, or the American Puritans were at one end of a spectrum of Protestant thought. Famously, parts of large religious communities are most violent to those who they consider heretics.

      Secondly, regarding persecution by the Assad coalition: you’re ignoring the context of ongoing civil war. Empirically, war tends to cause participants to “shoot first and ask questions later.” This is especially strongly observed in civil wars, which seem to be esp nasty and brutish and exacerbated by

      * 500 years of Syrian rule by the Ottomans (who favored the Sunni majority, who exploited the non-Sunnis of the north and east) and the French (who favored the non-Sunni minority, and used them to keep the majority Sunnis down).

      * many of the “Syrian” Sunnis being actually Iraqi refugees (forced to flee from the Iraqi civil war initiated by the US invasion), who are widely (often correctly) believed to be strongly anti-non-Sunni, which inclines the Assad coalition to hate and fear them.

      [1]: the term I favor because it removes the need to translate the obviously problematic ‘al-Sham.’
      [2]: sampled (non-theologically) by


      • Without a doubt, there a religious divisions even among Sunnis, and some Sunnis are killed in the Syrian fighting. However, there are no reports of ISIS (Daesh as you seem to prefer) targeting Sunnis specifically because they are Sunnis, unlike the case with other religious groups. Therefore, I do not think the statement “that’s just false” is at all warranted, and is certainly inflammatory in this context.


  8. Don’t the same arguments we have read here in earlier blog entries about how we undermine jobs of Americans in the technology sphere and how we further hammer those on the bottom tier also apply to the proposed Syrian refugee cohort? What if all the refugees had computer science backgrounds, would their welcome be challenged on these grounds, or if they are poorly educated?

    In high likelihood the numbers will quickly swell (and we can look to being guilt tripped into accepting others other quarters of the Middle East and from the chaos in Africa, etc, etc), are we just to ignore the impact of adding yet more players into the room?

    There are legitimate security issues and economic issues here but also environmental issues. Our immigration policy should be guided by one overriding proposition: immigration must be reduced, not expanded with new work visas, absurd investment visas, lottery visas or refugees ad infinitum.


    • Thanks for asking a very important question.

      Refugee policy is aimed at helping those in desperation. Though there is sometimes a debate as to who qualifies for that category, I believe that in most cases over the years, the refugee program has indeed worked in the way Americans think of it.

      By contrast, the H-1B and related programs do NOT work the way Americans think of them. In most cases (I say it is the vast majority of cases), H-1Bs etc. are NOT brought in to remedy labor shortages or to attract geniuses.

      As I wrote in response to another poster today, almost any government policy will involve a tradeoff. In the case of refugee policy, it amounts to saying that we are willing to undergo some sacrifice in order to help those in need. To paraphrase Obama’s statement, this is the American way.


  9. Norm, while I agree that our government should do something to help the refugee crisis, I don’t think that bringing them all into the US or Europe is the solution.

    The best thing that could be done is for our country to stop meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. The strongman dictators who ran or run Iraq, Libya, Syrian and Afghanistan are/were not saints. However, they kept those countries together with a minimum amount of violence – far less than what our actions have caused. Many of these countries had Sunni and Shiite tribes, Christians, Jews and other minorities living together in relative peace. The mass violence and migration didn’t start till our invasions.

    Also, we are not looking at the affect of bringing such a different type of culture into our Western nations. About 75% of the refugees are single, young men. They are overwhelmingly traditional Muslims. They don’t agree with our stances on women’s rights, gays rights, the environment, secular government and other Western democratic values.

    If you need proof I’ll give you a couple of examples from Western Europe. Starting in the 1970’s, Sweden loosened their immigration policies. With one of the most complete birth-to-grave social welfare systems, they were a favorite choice for immigrants leaving war zones such as Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Middle East. The results: crime is up 300%, rape is up 1400% and 25% of all Swedish women have been raped. If you don’t believe me search “Swedish Rape” on Google or YouTube. There have been similar increases in Norway and Denmark.

    Not all immigrants to Sweden act this way. The Jewish and Christian immigrant communities are thriving and are happy with the native Swedes and the Swedish government. As for the Muslim immigrants, they aren’t assimilating. Sweden has 55 official no-go zones where the police have surrendered control to the criminal gangs. Sharia law and the criminals are the only law in these areas. Similar areas have popped up in England and France.

    England has had similar problems. In Rotherham, UK, over a 16 year period, Pakistani gangs sexually exploited 1400 English girls, the majority being white and under-aged. A similar scandal occurred in the city of Rochdale. According to the UK Telegraph, part of the reason these scandals went on for so long was a town council riven by ‘bullying, sexism, suppression and misplaced political correctness’. Basically, the local government and media refused to investigate the crimes because the victims and perps weren’t politically correct.

    One of the biggest disappointments is that these crimes and issues are largely ignored by the mainstream media. Reports on the refugee issue generally focus on the refugees plight and not what their immigration will do to the host countries. One German village of 100 is being asked to host 500 refugees. What I ask of any reader is, would you bring 500 young Middle Easterners into your neighborhood or local area? If not, then why ask Europe or other US states and cities to do so?


    • You’ve written much more than I have time to reply to. But one point I want to comment on concerns the fact that immigration amounts to some degree of importing sexism, racism etc. I’ve actually said that myself on various occasions. But I believe most immigrants with such attitudes mellow in the years after they get here.
      Almost any government policy involves a tradeoff, though, and then it becomes a matter of drawing the line. Americans do support the notion of immigration; we just need to find a proper balance.


  10. I have no numbers to back this up but it seems to me that much of the gridlock and dissension we have in this country, gun control and public health care as examples, have their foundation in immigration with immigrants wanting to change to doing things as they were done where they came from. It looks to me like former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro spent a lifetime in politics trying to change my patria nostra into what her father left behind.

    Among the many reasons I oppose the refugees, amnesty and others coming here is that as a conservative Republican this is just more votes against me. And no, I do not see that as illegitimate.


  11. You may want to check out
    In this article, Senator Jeff Sessions points out how 12 VETTED refugees have become jihadi
    sympathizers. Perhaps we should rethink the type of immigrants that we allow into our country, especially those who hold an ideology that is the antithesis of freedom. Some wise individuals have mentioned that we could better serve these refugees by establishing centers in their own region of the world, so that they could more easily return to their home countries when the “powers that be” have finished kicking the butts of ISIS.


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