The Statue of Liberty: A Roadmap for Navigating the Syrian Refugee Debate

In the wake of the highly coordinated terror attack in Paris, the U.S. has begun a debate about whether or not to bring in Syrian refugees. Unfortunately, much of this debate has been tone-deaf and devoid of fact or even a cursory understanding of our laws and history.

More disturbing than this stunning lack of context, however, has been the shunning of our most cherished ideals and morals.

The most heinous example of blindness to American values comes to us in the form of republican presidential candidate front-runner Donald Trump. I will make my biases known: I think this man is an idiot. This is a man born so rich that he had the ability to, and did in fact, fail miserably in numerous business ventures with such extravagance that he had to declare bankruptcy on multiple occasions. As to be expected, this made him ridiculous enough to become a reality television star, which is the worst thing a human can be. On top of that, he’s a hypocrite and a liar.

But Trump, not to be outdone by his past self, has decided to up the ante and double-down on reasons to dislike him. Now he’s espousing spectacularly fascist ideas, which aren’t even good ideas. They’re not good ideas because they lack any basis in data, history, foresight, or morality. They will not solve the problems they (allegedly) seek to solve, and instead may exacerbate them. Of utmost concern is the fact that he’s not alone in his ill-advised thinking.

In the opinion of Donald Trump and those who share his views, the greatest nation on Earth – a phrase I don’t say ironically – should (a) shut its doors to Syrian refugees, and (b) create a national registry of mosques and Muslims. Following closely behind him in the asinine-worldview category is Jeb Bush, who wants to admit Syrian refugees, but only if they’re Christian.

These ideas are un-American, unintelligent, and for whatever it’s worth, un-Christian.

I am proud to call myself an American. I’m proud to be well-educated. I’m proud to come from a working-class home. And I’m proud to have been raised in a Christian family that taught me the very best values Christianity has to offer. Each of these elements of my identity cause me to vehemently reject the views of Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and their cohort. Then logic and knowledge cause me to reject their explanations.

The argument that we should ban all Syrian refugees from the U.S. because we cannot properly vet the applicants, is premised on a lack of understanding about refugees and the process by which they gain entry to the U.S.

The argument against bringing in Syrian refugees, carte blanche, goes like this: ISIS and other terror organizations are sophisticated enough to implant terrorists into the ranks of the refugees as a means to gain entry into the United States and other countries where they can then wreak havoc. Our immigration system is unable to properly vet these refugees, because Syria is in turmoil and doesn’t have a great history of keeping good records on its citizens. Thus, considering the risk of harm to Americans and the insufficient means of mitigating those risks, we should not bring any any Syrian refugees.

This is flawed on many levels, but it is important to note the few merits to this thinking.

First, it is absolutely a real possibility that admitting Syrian refugees will lead to the inadvertent admittance of some terrorists. However, this risk is blown out of proportion to the actual likelihood of this happening, and it is absurd to attempt to implement a zero risk policy with regards to, well, anything we do. There’s inherent and unavoidable risk in everything, and humans accept some level of risk every single day, all over the world, in every single aspect of our lives. We should never consider banning a choice based on risk where the reward outweighs the risk. Here, the risk is minimal and the reward is maximal. Since September 11, 2001, with over 700,000 refugees being resettled in the U.S., only a tiny fraction of 1% of refugees in the U.S. have been arrested or removed based on terror charges. Although the exact number is in dispute depending on how words like “terror” and “refugee” are defined, one thing is clear: the vast, vast majority of refugees in the U.S. are not implicated in terrorist threats. Barring entry to thousands of human beings posing a risk of less than a fraction of a percent is not based in sound risk-aversion theory.

Second, our refugee and asylum laws are tough. I briefly worked for an organization involved in legal asylum and refugee resettlement, and in that time I came to the conclusion that the process by which we admit refugees and asylum seekers is rigorous. But don’t just take my word for it. You can actually read about the process, for free, to see for yourselves: here and here are good starting points. Basically, both the U.N. and multiple government entities within the U.S. have to approve every refugee’s resettlement in this country. The process can take years. We are not letting people just wash up on shore from Syria with guns and bombs. It just doesn’t work like that. Also, despite the fear that we won’t know enough about the refugees because of the lack of reliable record-keeping by the Syrian government, it is important to note that we do this all the time anyway and, again, refugees aren’t murdering Americans in the streets.

The argument that we should only allow Christian refugees, to minimize the risk of terrorism, fails to appreciate the inherent difficulty in determining who is “Christian” and how many “Christians” commit acts of violence and terrorism.

Jeb Bush is afraid of letting in Syrian refugees due to a lack of proper record-keeping, because we won’t know who they are or what they’ve done; nonetheless, he assumes we can parse out the Christians. Presumably, he thinks that terrorists won’t lie about being Christian to gain entry into our country and kill us all. But something about the premise that they’ll blow themselves up to kill us, but won’t lie to do it, just doesn’t sit right with me.

It’s also important to note that we have plenty of “Christians” committing acts of violence and terrorism every year in this country. Just look at terrorism committed by white supremacist groups claiming ties to Christianity.

Although there is probably some truth in assuming that, if we could somehow only let in Christian refugees, we would expose ourselves to less risk than if we let in both Muslim and Christian refugees (based on sheer volume, if nothing else), it still seems hardly plausible that we can, and even less plausible that we should.

In light of the rhetoric being used by U.S. politicians and political candidates, it seems that the age-old caricature of the French sissy may no longer be relevant, and should be replaced by that of the American wimp.

It would be remiss to fail to appreciate the fact that this debate was sparked by horrific attacks in Paris, France, of all places, and that it has not shaken President Francois Hollande’s resolve to accept Syrian refugees, including Muslims. That, coming from France. And this, coming from the U.S.

We should, above all else, prioritize the words emblazoned across the Statue of Liberty, “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-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” In times like these, that beautiful proclamation should not be forgotten. As we navigate these difficult times, it is of tantamount importance we remember that those words come from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. Picture it: a Jewish woman named Lazarus wrote about the U.S. being a lighthouse of hope for refugees, then we put it on a statue given to us by the French commemorating our determination to proceed forward with liberty and democratic ideals.

And now, in 2015, my fellow Americans have Donald Trump as the front-runner in the race for our nation’s president, vowing to refuse all refugees, women and children included, from a country devastated by religious conflict, sectarian violence, and anti-democratic ideals. Piling on the historical irony, he wants to create a database of one minority group and use the military to force his views. He’s a failure at his first venture, he’s a hypocrite, he has weird hair, and, for some strange reason, a lot of people love him.

When I was growing up in the 20th century, conservatives always used “being French” as shorthand for cowardice. I wonder if the 21st century will reverse that trend, where French people can – rightfully so – call Americans the cowards and make mocking caricatures of us hiding under our blankets in fear of the downtrodden, scared, hurt refugees.

Our country thrives on doing for others, and I believe that we can best defeat evil and hatred through love and courage. Freedom ain’t free, these colors don’t run, yada yada. What happened to that? What happened to my brave, strong countrymen and women, willing to face off against perilous danger and evil overlords to protect the weak?

Or did we ever even exist?

Understanding the National Security Administration and Edward Snowden’s Leaks

According to John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, there are many Americans who still do not understand the National Security Administration (“NSA”) programs that Edward Snowden revealed in 2013. Many Americans don’t know who Snowden is, what he did, that he’s not the Wikileaks guy (that’s Julian Assange), or why his revelations about the state of national security matters.

Regardless of how you feel about Snowden, the NSA, and surveillance generally, it’s likely that, unless you’re a huge computer or political nerd, you don’t fully understand PRISM, MUSCULAR, X-KEYSCORE, or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court charged with overseeing these programs. The problem is that this issue involves a lot of highly technical jargon and acronyms that most people don’t understand.

If you want to know more, John Oliver has got you covered. In his infinite wisdom, he found a way to bring this topic down to a level we can all understand: dick pics. To learn more, click this link. It’ll be worth your time. Also, click here to go to Yes, that’s it’s real name.

But if you hate clicking cool links to learn cool things, just keep reading.

Who is Edward Snowden?

Snowden was a former NSA subcontractor who became disillusioned with what he saw as overreaching by the U.S. government in spying on American citizens and foreigners. He had access to a lot of sensitive information (data) that the NSA collected, as it claims, for the purpose of building intelligence to combat terrorism. Snowden disagreed with the lengths the NSA went to gain this data, believing that it was violating people’s privacy rights.

Because he disagreed with the NSA’s programs (discussed below), Snowden “blew the whistle” on them, which means that he brought their existence and methods to the public’s attention. As he says, he simply wanted the U.S. public to know about these programs so that we could have a meaningful discussion about whether we want to live in a society where the government effectively spies on most everything we do. It’s very Orwellian.

What are the NSA Programs PRISM, MUSCULAR, and X-KEYSCORE?

These are programs run by the NSA that Snowden blew the whistle on. To put simply, they’re like defensive football plays, kind of, with different players performing different functions and running different routes to achieve one major goal. In football, the defense tries to keep the other team from gaining yards and scoring. In the fight against terrorism, the NSA and other agencies try to prevent terrorists from blowing things up. The defensive linemen block the quarterback and running backs from running up the middle. The NSA intercepts information (data) sent via email or phone and reviews it for incriminating terrorism-related evidence to keep terrorists from exploding you. At least in theory.

PRISM is the most famous of these programs, so we’ll focus on it. The Washington Post has pictures, but I’ll just put it into words. Big internet companies (e.g. Yahoo, Google, Facebook, etc.) have servers that store information sent and received to those sites. So, when you write an email or a Facebook post, that information travels to a server where it’s stored and sent to the intended recipient. Think of it like snail mail. You write a letter (email), drive your car (internet highway) to the post office (Google’s server) and drop it off, and then the post office (Google) sends it to the intended recipient (grandma, because who else would you hand write a letter to in 2015). While the Google post office server has it, the NSA snatches it up. This is called “bulk data collection,” because they grab up just about everything.

Supporters of these NSA programs argue that bulk data collection doesn’t really tread on privacy rights, because it doesn’t collect the content of the calls and messages sent; instead, PRISM just shows the NSA when, how, and who sent what type of information (e.g. phone call, email, text) to whom. So they can see your envelope, the return address, and the intended recipient, but not the contents inside. However, that’s not quite true. Through all of the NSA’s programs combined, they can paint a pretty solid picture of what you’re doing, because we’re connected to so much communicating technology that it’s easy to track our moves. The NSA can see that I sent some emails from work this morning to other places in the city and, with relative ease, can figure out to whom exactly I sent them, then they can see that I did it again from home, and they can tell I got on Facebook and can draw a pretty good picture of which websites I visited. So they can see a good chunk of my day, and they’ve got that much without overreaching just slightly beyond the law, which requires that they only dive into the contents of my emails and phone calls (e.g. reading messages and listening to calls) if there’s a connection to terrorism.

While those limits sound pretty protective, in reality just about anybody can be on the “terror watch list.” This means that dubious connections can lead to you being watched closely by the NSA. Or as John Oliver puts it, they can see your dick pics.

So, at the end of the day, the NSA collects a lot of information about U.S. citizens and foreign persons here and abroad, and Edward Snowden tried to bring this issue to the attention of the public at large so that we could have a somewhat intelligent debate about it.