President Trump has been in office for just over three weeks now, and already he has stirred up controversy— which is unsurprising given his behavior on the campaign trail. Years of both the Bush and Obama administrations pushing the envelope of executive power have left our current commander-in-chief with seemingly limitless political power in the form of executive orders, and he has been signing them left and right to deliver on the promises he made over the course of his campaign. Though welcome to a significant portion of the population, an equally significant number has protested these actions, which have ranged from calls for the construction of a border wall to the beginnings of complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act (with no replacement plan on the horizon) to the point of contention for this particular piece: the temporary halt on immigrants and refugees from several Middle Eastern countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia) in the name of “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States”.
This is not the first time the United States has barred entry from certain areas of the world, and the cyclical nature of history will attest that this will not be the last time, either. The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, for example, occurred due to economic fears rather than political ones, but the gist of it was very similar to the order issued just over a week ago. The president is also adhering to the American tradition of turning away refugees seeking asylum out of the hypothetical fear that out of the thousands of innocent women, men, and children quite literally running for their lives, a few might have malevolent intentions. Anyone who has been to an American public school knows that these moments are often looked back on as low points in our nation’s history, if they are discussed at all. In some cases, these moments are simply brushed under the rug in hopes that if we all ignore them hard enough, we can convince ourselves they never happened.
Where did this fear come from? It didn’t spring up overnight, fully-formed from the president’s head—Xenophobic rhetoric has been present since the beginning of sovereign states, and Islamophobic remarks have been all too prominent in recent years, but hearing them spouted from the mouths of presidential hopefuls throughout the election cycle, and now the current president, have only served to inflame and validate these concerns. However, after close consideration of statistics, the fear is perhaps not as justified as it might first appear.
In the 15 years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 94 people have been the victims of jihadists in the U.S. At first glance, this number seems terrifying, but closer examination would reveal that this number is not exorbitantly larger than the 55 deaths with political affiliations— 50 perpetrated by right-wing attackers, and 5 on the left. That’s not to say that the deaths aren’t tragic; they certainly are. However, the threat of jihadists in the United States is a relatively small one that has been exacerbated by the trend of fake news and has grown into something that triggers mass hysteria. Statistic upon statistic shows that you are far more likely to die at the hands of another person with a gun than a jihadist (the number of annual gun deaths in the United States is 33,599, and even if that number includes the deaths at the hands of jihadist terrorists it still is 33,592.73 a year), and other evidence shows that not a single one of the terrorist attacks committed in the U.S. was done at the hands of a refugee. It is far easier for a potential terrorist to obtain a tourist or student visa, as the 9/11 attackers did, than apply for and be granted asylum.
The other big argument against admitting refugees is the fear that the refugees in question are not vetted properly, and the president’s calls for “extreme vetting” imply that the process is insufficient in its current state. However, those seeking asylum in the United States are the most heavily vetted group of people migrating into the country. The basic screening process is intensive in and of itself, and the precautions against Syrian refugees in particular have been increased in recent months. The process involves investigation into the individual by multiple intelligence agencies, including the State Department, FBI, and Homeland Security. Every individual is also interviewed in-person by a Homeland Security officer. Past visa applications are investigated, fingerprints are taken, and after 18 to 24 months, only fifty percent are cleared. Only 2% of admitted refugees are single males “of combat age”, also, so the likelihood of a refugee being an ISIS member in disguise decreases even further. Overall, the process is notoriously long and difficult to clear, and any aspiring terrorists would fare better by getting into the country through other means of migration.
The likelihood of falling victim to a terror plot is low, as is the likelihood that the incoming refugees are terrorists. So why is America so terrified? Much of it has to do with the psychology of human beings. We are much more likely to remember harrowing stories of terror attacks both at home and abroad, but are less likely able to recall the details of the attacks, such as who the perpetrators were, where they came from, and how they were able to get into the country in question. This accumulation of negative information with no real background leaves one susceptible to the natural human tendency to make snap judgments in the name of self-preservation without realistically weighing the risks. A study conducted in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings (note that the bombers were not refugees; their parents came into the country using tourist visas) found that those exposed to the bombings through the media were more acutely stressed about it than those who experienced it first hand or lived close-by, and in today’s age of a seemingly endless supply of bad news at our fingertips, it’s no wonder U.S. citizens are uneasy.
However, in response to this I implore us as a nation to take a step back from the media madness and base impulses and consider the actual statistics. Many of those seeking to come to America are innocent women and children, hoping to escape life-threatening situations, and if this situation fits into the pattern of American history, our denial of aid to those who need it will not be looked back upon favorably.