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Why We Should Take More Syrian Refugees

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
In the months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell sometimes invoked what he referred to as the Pottery Barn Rule: "You break it, you own it." The obligations of ownership are now coming due, in the form of millions of refugees desperate to escape the strife of the Middle East.

After the end of the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese left the country, often in rickety boats. Given the United States' role in the conflict, Americans soon came to accept an obligation to admit many of them.

Conservatives thought we had a duty because our withdrawal allowed the Communists to win. Liberals thought we had to step up because we had inflicted so much damage on Vietnam and its people. In 1975, we took in 125,000 Vietnamese refugees, a number that eventually grew to 750,000. They have become a significant part of the American mosaic.

Today, we don't have to agree on which president is most responsible for the tide of humanity crashing onto Europe's shores. Maybe you blame George W. Bush for starting a war that brought chaos to Iraq, which spilled into Syria. Maybe you fault Barack Obama for pulling out of Iraq and declining to take out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

We don't have to agree on which president broke the region. But one or both of them had a hand in the destruction. So we can't very well pretend we have no obligation to the hordes driven from their homes. This is the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, a humanitarian emergency of the highest order, and the U.S. isn't doing enough to ameliorate it.

Some four million Syrians have left their homeland, going to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and other neighboring nations. Hundreds of thousands have set sail across the Mediterranean Sea for Europe, and many have not made it: More than 5,000 migrants have died in the attempt. Others have suffered terrible hardships -- which will only get worse with the onset of colder weather.


Some European countries have decided they have no choice but to open their doors. Turkey is now host to 1.9 million Syrians. Germany is planning to take 800,000 by the end of this year. Sweden has admitted nearly 65,000.

And the United States? About 1,500. On Thursday, the White House announced it would agree to another 10,000 in the coming year. But that's a tiny step toward solving a huge problem that is partly our creation.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), a private group, proposes a larger target: 100,000 Syrian refugees by the end of next year. That figure would not be out of line with what has been done in the past.

Besides the Vietnamese, we took in more than a million Cubans, including 125,000 in 1980. More than 300,000 Soviet Jews came here after 1988. Today, most Americans hardly remember these influxes, because they had no obvious ill effects.

The Syrian exodus sparks fears of Islamic terrorists making their way here. But people who trek hundreds of miles on foot or cram into rubber rafts for ocean voyages typically have more pressing objectives than militancy. They do it to escape violence and extremism, not to spread it. We know how to handle this challenge, having already admitted more than 100,000 Iraqis.

In any event, the U.S. government doesn't simply wave in anyone who applies for asylum. It has a thorough program to screen out criminals, jihadists and other undesirables. Applicants have to prove a credible fear of persecution or torture back home. "It's very selective," Eskinder Negash, senior vice president for global engagement at USCRI, told me.


If the goal is to combat extremism, taking in asylees is a better tactic than letting them languish in bleak camps abroad. "There is no surer way to create a young terrorist than leave them to fester in an under-resourced refugee community," Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute told USA Today.

The U.S. has a lot of experience with refugees. In a normal year, we resettle more than any other country. With the help of churches and other charitable groups, the newcomers generally adapt and integrate into society. Their children grow up Americans.

There is nothing about the Syrians that should deter us from admitting them in far greater numbers than we have so far. Besides, like it or not, we kind of owe them.

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