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Our Refugee System Is Not Broken

There has been a lot of attention given to the refugee process over the past several days. Most of it has been heartbreaking – wanting to close our borders to those most in need. But, out of this has also come a great wealth of information about our refugee process.

Any opportunity to educate is good, and I encourage you to learn more about the U.S. refugee application and vetting process through this chart (PDF, opens in new window).

When your laptop is broken, you don’t turn your oven on and off, hoping that your laptop will magically come back to life. The two are not connected. And yet, I feel like that’s exactly what’s happening with the discussion of the past week with closing our borders to Syrian refugees because of the attacks in Paris.

Our refugee program isn’t broken, not by any means.

What we know is that attackers in Paris were all European nationals, that the Syrian passport found was fake, that the U.S. has a thorough screening process for refugees, that the U.S. is not Europe, that asylum-seekers are not refugees, and that how Europe handles asylum-seekers is different than how the U.S. handles refugees.

What problem does it solve if we don’t take in Syrian refugees?

We can, and we have, learned from our immigration weaknesses. I’d like to share an example from our not-so-distant past.

In the fall of 2001, I was a graduate student and worked in the International Student Office. After we learned that several of the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. as students, there was an immediate call by some in Congress for a moratorium on student visas. That never came to pass, but the shake-up within the international student education world was necessary.

Before 9/11, the immigration forms universities used to create the contract between the student, the U.S. government, and the school was typed on carbon paper. The university kept a copy in a binder, often on a shelf – unlocked and unprotected. The student received a copy, as well, and presented that to the immigration officer along with their passport and visa when they entered the country. As students are apt to do, they applied to several schools and several of these immigration forms were created for each student – one for each school.

Once a student entered the United States, though, did they ever appear at the university, though? At new student orientation, part of my job was to look at the new students’ immigration entry documents – including their copy of the form we created and match it up with what we had in our binder.

Every semester, the university then notified legacy-INS with a list of which forms were unmatched so they could, in turn, look through their records to see if anyone used our form to enter the U.S., but failed to report to school.

If someone didn’t report, 99.99% it was something innocuous – they decided to go somewhere else, they decided to work instead of study, they wanted to travel. But with the 9/11 terrorists, they of course, had something much more horrific in mind.

What happened within the international student education community after 9/11 was transformative and necessary. A computerized, centralized database (SEVIS) that allowed universities and the Department of Homeland Security to communicate directly with one another was created. No more carbon copies. Universities could report as soon as a student arrived, but they could also report a student as “no show,” potentially alerting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to a situation if that student had, in fact, entered the country. Absconding students became a top priority for ICE to find and remove from the country.

That’s how you solve a problem. By identifying the issue, removing the emotion and thinking clearly.

By threatening to no longer accept Syrian refugees – could someone please tell me, what problem, exactly, are we even trying to solve?

When trying to limit Syrian refugees to the state, or to the country, the current arguments appear hollow to me. There is no reason to single out Syrians over other nationalities. If governors don’t want any refugees in their states, they should say so. If they don’t want any immigrants in their states, they should say so. If they don’t want anyone of a particular religion or skin color or anyone who speaks a particular language in their states, they should say so.

But to take the attacks in Paris – and indeed all the horrific and barbaric attacks caused by DAESH – and then connect it to a restriction on Syrian refugees because of a feared flaw in the system (a flaw that has not been nearly so exposed as in the example above), is ill-informed and cruel.

If anything is broken, perhaps it’s our moral compass.

– Tracie