On Accepting Refugees: Pros And Cons

(NOTE:  This article has been revised again; the pros and cons listed have been kept up to date, even though the intro is vintage campaign.)

Major media outlets are full of reactions to recent announcements that the President will be asking to increase the ceiling on Syrian refugee acceptance for next year.  Unsurprisingly, the stories are largely focused on the reaction to the announcement; contention drives the media profit mill, and so it would be unusual to see any other form of response from them.

Since it’s the height of the upcoming Presidential election cycle, it’s also not surprising that every hopeful candidate has weighed in with some sort of emotional appeal on the subject.  Indeed, it can also be presumed that the announcement itself was made with the upcoming race in mind; members of both parties tend toward the extremes during election years, and Mr. Obama is a skilled electioneer.

So many prominent politicians have jumped on the bandwagon, in fact, that this issue promises to become a pivotal one during the upcoming primaries.  Governors and mayors across the country — some from each party, but largely Republicans — have stated their opposition in unequivocal (and very public) terms.   The general philosophy seems to be that known as NIMBY:  Not In My Back Yard, and it’s one that, historically, tends to grab hold of the imaginations of voters.

But all of this is emotional.  There have been no objections of substance, and very few messages of support based in fact or concrete plan.

Rational Objections

Here’s some rational, logical reasons to sharply limit an influx of refugees.

(1) It can never be enough. – At last count, there were four million Syrian refugees displaced by this crisis.  They aren’t the only ones, mind; there’s large numbers of Iraqis, Lebanese, Jordanians, Kurds, et cetera that have been forced out of their homes over this.

But why stop there?  There are currently some 20 million refugees worldwide; why not house them all?  Is there any moral imperative keeping us from doing just that?

And, while we’re at it, why not do something for that great mass of mankind that’s living in abject poverty, in deep and utter need?  There are billions of people in this world that have difficulty getting enough to eat on a daily basis, but America is the land of the agricultural surplus and has been for decades.

The simple truth is, we couldn’t feed and house the teeming billions of the world, nor would we want to if we could.   It’s horrible to think, much less say, but if we feed them all today, what’s to prevent there being more tomorrow?  And yet, that is the nature of the global population crisis — which we must address.

And something is being done, at least.  Vast improvements in agriculture overseas are being made, largely as a product of American investment and the work of American companies, American scientific advancements.  Education on population control is continuing, to the point that even the Catholic church, long opposed to birth control, has begun to endorse it (however tentatively).

And that brings me to:

(2) It’s more efficient and effective to house refugees overseas. – After all, the price tag on international transport is massive, and the cost of housing and feeding a person in any highly industrialized nation is more than ten times that of anywhere in the third world.  At present, the United States is spending nearly three billion dollars annually toward the maintenance of Syrian refugees; to maintain them in America would cost eighteen times as much per person.  (It should here be noted that the United States contributes not only more than any other country but instead every other country combined.)

(3) There’s a genuine danger. – Despite a great deal of protestation to the contrary, it must be admitted that there have been a large number of crimes committed by refugees and the children of refugees.  The most famous were the Tsarnaev brothers and the Boston Marathon bombing, but that’s an outlier and hardly representative — if all displaced Muslims were terrorists, or even a small fraction, the country would be burning down as we speak.  On the other hand, refugee communities tend toward poverty, disaffection, and all the attendant problems with crime and social issues.

I want to be clear on this.  Most acts of terrorism aren’t committed by refugees or by those pretending to be refugees, but rather by the disaffected already living in a national population.  They often travel legitimately to other countries where they receive training, and then they return with the plans and ability to commit attacks.  This has been the pattern with the Weathermen, with the 9/11 terrorists, with the Paris attacks — it’s consistent because it works.

They have no need to sneak agents in among refugees.  Refugees are vetted; people who hold valid passports are not.  People who walk across the Canadian border and travel with false papers face no inspection.  It’s very simple.

But there does exist a very real danger from crime.  More, there’s a high price, thus:

(4) There exists a disproportionate social burden. – Wounds, malnutrition, and attendant medical issues aside, refugees and their descendants are far less likely to become productive citizens.  Several studies have shown a high incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and/or depression, with a high rate of psychiatric co-morbidity.

This is only to be expected; after all, these individuals are, by definition, survivors of persecution and violence.  Had they not suffered trauma, they wouldn’t be forced to relocate.  In addition, a refugee population is easily and frequently exploited; this problem is graphically illustrated by the relative lack of reliable statistics on the subject.  Think about it:  With all our efforts, we save so very few from exploitation (think sex-trade slavery) that any data is statistically insignificant.

However understandable and reasonable, though, these problems carry with them an increased cost, both societally (due to disaffection and maladjustment) and economically (due to treatment requirements and a lack of employability).

Arguments In Favor

Despite the above, there are several compelling reasons for the United States to accept refugees.  Here’s a few:

(1) Social evolution. – Historically, this country has been populated by vast waves of immigrant groups, most fleeing from one crisis or another.  The Pilgrims fled religious persecution.  England under the Protector led to a large expatriate population here.  The Irish came during their famine in the 1840s, Germans, Poles, and Italians during civil wars in the 1850s-60s, and so on, decade after decade.  While not all of them were excellent citizens from the get-go, a lot were, and the positive legacy from these waves of immigrants has generated that demand for personal freedom and individual rights that so characterizes the American psyche today.

(2) Individual contributions. – There have been so many refugees that have contributed so very much to this country that it’s difficult to know where to start.  From Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi of Manhattan Project fame to Werner von Braun and the rest of the Operation Paperclip scientists, America jumped into the lead of global technology after the War and maintained that lead for decades.  The soldiers in the Union Army during our Civil War were just over 20% recent immigrants, from the famed Irish Brigade to most of the 11th Corps — and many of those were fleeing persecution at home.  The stories are too many and too varied to even begin to cover them all, but it’s certain that we wouldn’t be where we are were it not for our acceptance of refugees.

(3) Lack of resentment. – For every refugee we accept today, thousands are rejected.  This does nothing to endear us to the globally disenfranchised.  On the other side of that coin, though, those we do permit to enter here will likely be grateful for the chance to do so.

One problem we have in the present conflict is a lack of human intelligence within terror organizations.  There’s one great way to gain volunteers for that sort of thing, and you don’t have to take that on my authority.

“The enemy’s spies who have come to spy on us must be sought out, tempted with bribes, led away and comfortably housed.  Thus they will become converted spies and available to our service.  It is through the information brought by the converted spy that we are able to acquire and employ local and inward spies…”

– Sun Tzu, “The Art of War” (Giles translation)

(4) Global propaganda. – How can we, one of the wealthiest countries on the face of the earth, possibly justify our requests for other nations to accept refugees if we refuse to take them in ourselves?  How can we expect any respect from the international community if we fail in this regard?  As long as we continue to act militarily, which even when justified and necessary will inevitably increase the refugee problem, we must act to help repair the damage we’ve done.  It is incumbent on us not from a moral standpoint so much as one of perception; if we fail, we lose credibility in the international arena.

(5) It’s what the terrorists don’t want. – Modern terror organizations function on doctrine from two centuries ago, the philosophy of ‘Propaganda of the Deed’ embraced in such works as “The Communist Manifesto” of Marx and Engels.  The theory is that, as horrific acts are committed, governments will crack down, repressing their own populations, and minority subgroups will be oppressed by the majority.  This will inevitably give rise to more violence by those oppressed, which generates more oppression in turn.  The cycle continues until revolution is inevitable.

By behaving predictably, we play directly into the hands of those organizing the terror attacks.  By our hostile and negative reactions, we support the meaning they wish these atrocities to have, and we ourselves become their tools without meaning to.

Logically, it would be wiser to suppress our baser instincts and act from compassion.  In this way, we can gain the sympathy of those meant by the terrorists to suffer harm — their own people who follow their own faith.


It is my considered opinion, after having weighed these and other arguments, that we as a nation must accept some refugees from the Syrian war and elsewhere.  In fact, we must be seen to accept them if we are to maintain any credibility with our allies, both in the region and elsewhere in the world.

Yes, there is a cost; yes, there is danger.  But I’m convinced that both are outweighed by the price of doing nothing, the cost of rejecting those who seek asylum in our country.

There’s one more factor, you see, and while emotional, it’s nevertheless one of substance:  Our national identity is as a nation of refuge, a home for the downtrodden, a place of safety from tyranny and oppression.  It is who we are, who we always have been, and if we change that part of us, we change ineradicably who we must see ourselves as.  We will no longer be the land of the free but instead the land of privilege and power, of selfishness, greed, corruption.

Some would say we’re already halfway there.

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” “

The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus, 1883


Writer’s Note:  I’d like to thank you for making this article so popular.  Remember:  If you’re using it for academic purposes, be careful about copyright; you don’t want to get in trouble over it.  Even if I won’t sue you — and I probably won’t — that doesn’t mean your professor hasn’t read this.

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