Muslim immigration to the US: Fact-checking conservative scare tactics


With war or possible genocide raging in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar, the world faces a global refugee crisis marked by large-scale Muslim immigration. How this new wave of migration impacts the United States was a major topic of debate during the 2016 US presidential election.

President-elect Donald Trump and his surrogates — who won the White House partly on a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment — pushed for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S., "extreme vetting" of Muslim migrants, a Muslim registry and, most bizarrely, compared Muslim refugees to Skittles. 

They weren't alone in their hostility. Several Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits also supported — and even previously advocated for — many of the same measures. In November 2015, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill to suspend visas from Syrian refugees and bar migrants from other Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. The bill included a 30-day waiting period for all other immigrants.

Unfortunately, an alarming portion of Americans support such discriminatory policies against refugees and Muslim immigrants. According to a poll conducted by YouGov in November and December 2015, 45% of Americans supported Trump's Muslim ban. According to a separate Morning Consult poll reported by the Hill, 49% of Americans supported the ban as of March 2016. The Wall Street Journal reports tht 56% of Americans believe the U.S. should be accepting fewer refugees. 

Mic spoke to David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute — an American libertarian think tank — and Robert McKenzie, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, to shed light on five key misconceptions used by anti-immigration proponents to stoke fear of Muslims among the American people.

Myth #1. Muslim refugees and immigrants are dangerous

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Bier says there isn't much evidence to support this claim. "What I would say is that the likelihood of you being killed in a terrorist attack by a refugee on U.S. soil is one in 3.6 billion over the last 40 years," he said.

The analyst added that it's extremely unlikely for an American to be killed by a refugee. "In fact, all the refugees that killed anybody through 2015 were actually Cuban refugees and not from parts of the world Trump wants to cut us off from," he said.

McKenzie added that the United Nations Committee on Human Rights and its partners typically identify the most vulnerable people to help resettle. Those considered vulnerable, according to McKenzie, are often single parent, female-led families, orphans, unaccompanied minors, women and girls at-risk and survivors of torture. 

He also said it's important to note that hard data and history suggests that refugees don't pose a significant terrorism threat. 

"The US has resettled 860,000 refugees since [the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks], and during that 15-year period only three people have been arrested on terrorism related charges.," McKenzie said. "They're also for unsuccessful plots outside the US. Our process [in vetting] is very, very good. That's a different message than what we have learned in the past election cycle."

Myth #2. The U.S. doesn't vet refugees, and even if it wanted to, FBI Director James Comey says it's impossible

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"That's not totally true," Bier said. "What [James] Comey said was what we can't do with refugees is background checks. That's not really the same thing as saying we can't vet them."

Comey was merely noting the limitations of a background check, Bier explained. In November 2015, Republicans introduced a bill requiring every single refugee to be personally vetted and certified by Comey and other national security officials. While testifying in Congress, the FBI director said it would be impractical to ensure there's zero risk for every individual refugee.

The FBI director made similar statements at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on Oct. 8, 2015.

"There is risk associated with bringing anybody in from the outside, but especially from a conflict zone like that," he said. "From the intelligence community's perspective, as I said, I think we've developed an effective way to touch all of our databases and resources to figure out what we know about individuals."

Comey never said that it would be "impossible" to vet refugees.

McKenzie added that the US refugee vetting process is thorough and detailed. "It's a multifaceted process. [These are] vetted refugees. It's implementing partners in the ground and a detailed process."

Bier went on to explain that background checks only usually show up when an individual has had a run-in with law enforcement. 

"If you never committed an act of terrorism or a crime, then you're not in a database that will present information in a background check," Bier said. "If there's no reason for any law enforcement to take notice of you, you're not going to come up as barred for owning a gun. It's not the same thing as vetting people."

Bier also jokingly added that there is no such thing as a "future check," as opposed to a "background check," since the U.S. can't predict the future accurately. 

"We can only base our information on what information we have on them and base it on the history we have," Bier added. "The idea that since we can't vet some people, we can't vet them at all is not true."

Myth #3. Refugees have no documentation, which makes it easy for terrorists to sneak into the country

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Bier said refugees often don't have documentation on-hand, since many were forced to abandon their homes quickly and sometimes leave behind their birth certificates and identity cards. However, lacking tangible documentation is not the same as lacking information on refugees. 

"There's information based on their interaction with the U.N. and other international and government agencies," Bier said. "By the time they arrive, we have a lot of information from obtaining their fingerprints, knowing the languages they speak or their relations to people in the U.S. We know these things before they arrive."

Bier also said the U.S. has gotten a lot better at vetting and gathering information than it was 10 years ago, making it quite difficult for terrorists to sneak in. One example is a foiled plot in 2011 involving an Iraqi refugee in Iraq making a homemade IED. Fortunately, the FBI caught him through information from fingerprints on an IED.

"Since information is now all integrated into one database, it's a lot easier to conduct thorough background checks than 10 years ago," Bier said.

McKenzie agrees. "When [refugees] are vetted oversees, they are requested to provide documentation or information," he said. "If they don't have it, because they're fleeing armed conflict, then everything else they provided is vetted. This vetting process doesn't take a few days or months. It takes years.

"We might not be able to have every piece of information about them, but that's why we have this lengthy, multi-faceted, robust vetting process."

Myth #4. The Boston Marathon bombers, Dzhokar Tsarnev and Tamerlan Tsarnev, were refugees

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"As a legal matter, [the Tsarnevs] are not refugees. They did not come under a U.S. refugee program. They came through a temporary visa and then applied for asylum," Bier said.

Bier explained that asylum seekers are different than refugees. The main difference is that refugees don't choose to come to the U.S. Instead, the U.S. picks their ultimate destination, as opposed to these refugees choosing to immigrate here.

"If you're a terrorist, coming as an asylum seeker is a lot easier than coming as a refugee. This is because you would not know where you are going," Bier explained. "It's also important to note that refugees are also vetted overseas before arriving in the U.S."

It's equally erroneous to connect the Tsarnev brothers to the U.S. vetting process, Bier said. Since the two young men, who immigrated as children from Chechnya, were not facing persecution at home and were not the primary asylum applicants, it's inaccurate to even call them "asylum seekers."

"[The Tsarnevs] came through as children. So it's not our vetting process [that is to blame]. The Tsarnevs are not an indictment to our vetting process."

Myth #5. It's not right for the U.S. to take in Muslim refugees when wealthy Gulf states like Saudi Arabia are not

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Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are not part of the United Nations Convention on Refugees. This leads to data on refugees entering Saudi Arabia, UAE and other gulf states being omitted from U.N. reports. 

"It's just not true to say Gulf states are not taking refugees," Bier said. "These Gulf states are not part of the U.N. agreement, and so the refugees coming in are not called refugees. In fact, they are taking many many many refugees and way more than the U.S."

According to Bier, the Syrian population grew dramatically in Saudi Arabia throughout the ongoing civil war that started in March 2011. His colleague, Alex Nowrasteh, another immigration analyst at the Cato Institute, wrote a report revealing that Saudi Arabia increased their Syrian population over that period from approximately 110,000 to over 1 million. 

Other Gulf states, like the UAE, also brought in big numbers, accepting 61,000 Syrian refugees. Kuwait has accepted approximately 20,000, Bahrain over 4,000, Qatar more than 12,000 and Iraq over 150,000. To put that number into perspective, the US has only accepted about 10,000 Syrian refugees.

"If you combine all of these numbers all together, it will be well over a million Syrians," Bier added.  "So that claim is just not correct."

McKenzie said that, while these Gulf states should be doing more, American values dictate that we defend and protect those who are vulnerable regardless.

"Since 1975, we have taken over three million refugees," he said. "It is our principle and values to protect those in need of international protection and fled armed conflict. And we hopefully will continue to do so."