Why Syrian refugees are no threat

On the Turkish border with Syria, in a town called Reyhanli, there's a refugee mom with four children, facing an even harsher world this week after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Before, she was seeking an avenue to a better life in the West; now, according to Lina Sergie Attar, CEO of the Chicago-based Karam Foundation, Razan questions whether she and her children will be safe or welcome there.

The family fled Damascus after their father was executed for participating in a government protest. The youngest child, Ibrahim, saw the execution in front of his own eyes. Despite the tragedy, the children remain hopeful. The oldest daughter, Sarah, wants to study English literature. The oldest son, Sulieman, taught himself graphic design from YouTube and is already working.

"They're rock-star kids," said Attar, in a Skype call from Istanbul after a visit to Karam's classrooms in Reyhanli. The foundation focuses on education and sustainable development for Syrian refugees. "How can people deny a family like that a better chance?"

Fatima from Syria (front) walks ahead of other migrants as they make their way on foot after crossing the Croatian-Slovenian border, in Rigonce, Slovenia, October 22, 2015.
Srdjan Zivulovic | Reuters
Fatima from Syria (front) walks ahead of other migrants as they make their way on foot after crossing the Croatian-Slovenian border, in Rigonce, Slovenia, October 22, 2015.

The knee-jerk, ill-informed responses of some U.S. governors to the attacks is making life harder for people who are victims of the violence in the Middle East, while doing next-to-nothing to increase security for Americans.

Nearly two dozen Republican governors and Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson and Donald Trump have said they want to bar Syrian refugees from resettling in the United States, though it's not clear they have the power. Some governors have gone a step further down the path of religious extremism, and suggested that the U.S. only accept Christian Syrians, not Muslim Syrians.

They are carving an identity for the United States based on intolerance and fear -- and their positions show a lack of understanding of who the refugees coming to the United States are, and who they are likely to become. They are focused on news reports that say one person who carried out the attacks in the Paris seems to have entered Europe as a Syrian refugee.

In the past five years, the United States has resettled only about 2,000 Syrian refugees, according to the Church World Service, one of 9 resettlement agencies that works with the federal government. President Obama pledged to increase that number to 10,000 by the end of the fiscal year in September out of about 85,000 refugees from around the world. To put that in context, that's less than half of the number it accepted each year after the Vietnam War.

For further context: Germany has agreed to accept 1.5 million refugees in 2015.

The refugees who have made it to the United States pass our country's narrow resettlement filter: They are the most vulnerable, people who have been victims of direct persecution. They are often women and children.

Many who come have family ties here, to established Syrian-American households. Among Syrian immigrants, 39 percent have college degrees, a higher percentage than native-born populations, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The average household income of Syrian immigrants, $52,000, is higher than the foreign-born population and almost on par with that of U.S.-born population.

And who are the refugees likely to become? Studies show over time that refugees benefit the countries where they land, with higher rates of entrepreneurship and solid rates of employment and income. In the United States, refugee men and women are employed at equal or higher rates than the native-born population. There's no rational reason to suspect that Syrian refugees will be any different. To treat them differently based on religion or nationality is the definition of bigotry.

It's tempting to give in to fear, and perhaps that is what is motivating the governors who are attempting to forbid Syrians refugees. But the United State's long history of overcoming fear to welcome people of people of all religions, ethnicities and nationalities serves as a clear example of why we do so. It bears repeating that refugees, some from countries and communities once among our most feared enemies, have been at the helm of some of our greatest business stories. Take Intel founded by Andy Grove, a refugee from communist Hungary. Sergey Brin, one of Google's founders, is Russian-born son of a Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union.

Security is a valid concern, but one that can be met in the refugee population by the America's already robust screening program, which resettlement agencies say at 18-24 months is one of the toughest in the world. Of the 784,000 refugees resettled since 9/11, one has been arrested for planning a terrorist attack in the United States, and none has succeeded, according to the MPI.

If the governors aren't truly motivated by fear, then what? A cynic could say that they are deflecting attention from real dangers that are in their power and are their responsibility to mitigate: Terrorists are far more likely to enter the United States by overstaying visas and to evade detection by taking advantage of states' bureaucracies. The 9/11 hijackers avoided detection in part because of states' inability to work across state lines on driver's licenses.

Eighteen of the 19 terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks held over 30 valid driver's licenses and identification cards issued by five states, according to an upcoming book, WTF: Identity Fraud's Drain On Our Government And How To Stop It, by Larry Benson and Andy Bucholz.

If there are further attacks in the United States, the responsibility is far more likely to lie at the governors' doors than with refugees like Razan and her four children. They are the victims of the same kind of terror that killed 129 people in Paris. Like all victims of circumstances beyond their control, refugees deserve our protection, and they are likely to make the most of it, becoming a benefit to the country that took them in.

If the governors want to bring religion into it, how about remembering Matthew 25:35:

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in."

Commentary by Elizabeth MacBride, a freelance writer and editor who writes about entrepreneurs and the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @editoremacb.