2016 GOP Presidential Contenders Weigh In on Syrian Refugee Crisis

GOP Debate (Kevork Djansezian / Getty)
Kevork Djansezian / Getty

The immense migration wave pushing out of the Middle East will not stop in Europe. It is already coming ashore in the United States, as the number of Syrian refugees to be resettled in America has increased dramatically over the past year. Where do the presidential candidates stand on this issue?

Somewhat surprisingly, Donald Trump was early out of the gate in declaring the United States should accept more Syrian refugees. “I hate the concept of it, but on a humanitarian basis, with what’s happening, you have to,” he told Bill O’Reilly of Fox News on Tuesday night.

“This was started by President Obama when he didn’t go in and do the job he should have when he drew the line in the sand, which turned out to be a very artificial line,” Trump continued. “But you know, it’s living in hell in Syria. There’s no question about it. They’re living in hell, and something has to be done.”

Trump went on to undermine this cause-and-effect analysis a bit by saying that maybe European and/or American forces should have taken Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad off the table long ago, to prevent this refugee crisis, or maybe the refugee crisis is a reasonable price to pay for setting up a bloody arena in which Assad and ISIS could tear each other to shreds.

“Probably, in retrospect, they should have gone in and done something with Assad. But you know, Assad is not our biggest problem because Assad and ISIS are actually fighting,” Trump told O’Reilly. “So now what we’re doing is we’re fighting ISIS and ISIS wants to fight Assad. Some people could say, ‘Why don’t you just let them fight out and you take out the remnants?'”

Trump did not specify how many Syrians he thought the United States should take, or indicate whether he was aware of the number already on tap for this year. The initial figure of 1,500 will more than double by the time 2016 rolls around, according to the State Department. The United Nations wants the U.S. to take at least 65,000 Syrians.

Senator Marco Rubio more tentatively endorsed the idea of accepting more Syrian refugees, although he also did not specify a number. “We would be potentially open to the relocation of some of these individuals at some point in time to the United States,” he said. “We’d always be concerned that within the overwhelming number of the people seeking refuge, someone with a terrorist background could also sneak in.”

“We’ve always been a country that’s been willing to accept people who have been displaced, and I would be open to that if it can done in a way that allows us to ensure that among them are not infiltrated… people who were, you know, part of a terrorist organization that are using this crisis.” Rubio elaborated in an interview with the Boston Herald’s radio show. “I think overwhelmingly, the vast and overwhelming majority of people that are seeking refuge are not terrorists, of course. But you always are concerned about that.”

However, he went on to call for a long-term regional strategy that would allow displaced Syrians, especially Assyrian Christians, to “go back to their ancient cities, and their ancient population centers.”

Rubio also hit Democrat candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “the architect of the foreign policy” that failed and produced this refugee crisis, and worried that the flood of refugees was “potentially destabilizing many of our NATO allies in Europe.”

CNN – which, like nearly every media outlet relaying Rubio’s statement, took pains to note he was “a son of immigrants” [actually refugees] himself – notes that one of the reasons a relatively small number of Syrians are being resettled to the United States is the “long security vetting procedure meant to ensure that only desperate refugees – not extremists – reach American soil,” a process that takes about 18 months to complete. As Europe is learning the hard way, it is impossible to maintain such security precautions during a massive migration.

In fact, European authorities are not even being given enough time to establish if the refugees really are Syrian, or if they are fleeing from the Syrian war zone. A sizable percentage of them are “economic migrants” who already escaped Syria, and now seek greener pastures in continental Europe.

Presumably Rubio would want to vet America-bound refugees carefully enough to ensure that the really are bona fide Syrian war refugees, and perform security checks to weed out the riskiest applicants. It would be extremely difficult, and very expensive, to accept a high number of refugees while maintaining such a stringent application process. Every candidate who thinks America needs to accept more Syrian refugees should be prepared to specify a number, and explain how he or she plans to expedite the immigration process to realize that number.

Unquestionably the strongest call for accepting more Syrians came from Senator Lindsey Graham, who declared we should “take our fair share” – and “take down the Statue of Liberty” if we don’t. He went on to invoke the memory of a German ship carrying Holocaust refugees being turned away from the United States and sent back to doom in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1939.

“I don’t think the average American has any idea what it’s like to live in the Mideast right now,” said Graham. “I don’t see how you can lead the free world and turn your back on people who are seeking it.”

He said the current levels of assistance constitute a “blight on our honor,” and also told Europe to “up your game,” because “the worst is yet to come” from Syria.

The earliest and firmest refusals to accept a dramatically higher number of Syrians came from Carly Fiorina and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. Fiorina described the pictures of refugees heading for Europe as “unbelievably heartbreaking,” especially the now-famous photo of a Syrian toddler who washed ashore after drowning in the Mediterranean, but said on CBS’ Face the Nation that she believed the U.S. “has done its fair share in terms of humanitarian aid.”

“I think the United States, honestly, sadly, cannot relax our entrance criteria,” Fiorina continued. “We are having to be very careful about who we let enter this country from these war-torn regions to ensure that terrorists are not coming here.”

She thought the Europeans needed to do more in terms of providing humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees, an endeavor the U.S. has already funded to the tune of some $4 billion, making it the largest donor by a considerable margin.

“They have not done as much as the United States has done on that front,” Fiorina said of the Europeans. “And I also think they are beginning to step up and let some of these refugees cross into their borders. But, sadly, this is a crisis that everyone should have known was coming for at least three years now.”

She hammered President Obama for failing to anticipate the refugee crisis and failing to “exercise any of the options” he had for preventing it. “He has watched as this humanitarian crisis has grown and grown,” she said. “It isn’t surprising, actually, that these refugees are pouring out of Syria. We now have somewhere between 43 million and 60 million refugees on the move around the world because they are trying to escape conflict zones like Syria.”

As for Governor Jindal, he told the UK Guardian – which reports decidedly mixed success getting other candidates from either party to take a firm stand on the issue – that taking a vast number of Syrian refugees into the United States would be a “ridiculous” way to resolve the crisis. He made essentially the same points as Fiorina, using somewhat tougher language.

“Let’s call this Syrian disaster exactly what it is – the result of President Obama’s leading from behind strategy – he drew the red line and then backed down,” said Jindal. “And no, the answer is not for America to increase the number of refugees we take in. We are already the most compassionate and generous country in the world and it is not even close. No other country provides anywhere near the amount of assistance for hurting people around the world as we do. But the idea that we can fix all these problems by just accepting the world’s refugees is ridiculous. We simply have to get a new commander in chief, fast.”

Senator Ted Cruz said the refugee crisis “demands our urgent attention,” and called for increased “public and private assistance to the international organizations who are best poised to administer aid,” but said the United States should not accept a dramatically larger number of resettled Syrians.

“In terms of settling the migrants, if the ultimate goal is to return them to their homes, which I believe it should be, it doesn’t make sense from a logistical or a security standpoint to move large numbers of them to far-off countries like the United States,” Cruz argued.  “Ultimately, we need to address the cause of this crisis or we will just have more and more migrants displaced.”

Cruz had strong words for those he held responsible for creating the crisis and using it as leverage against the Western world.  He did not share what he portrayed as the Obama Administration’s reluctance to name names:

Bad actors like Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s Putin, both of whom have contributed tangentially to this crisis, announced this week that the West is to blame. This is disingenuous at best. The blame should be laid squarely at the door of the vicious, radical Islamism that is tearing communities apart from Libya to Syria and Iraq, creating the terrible circumstances that are causing the migrants to flee their homes. The failure of the United States has been an unwillingness to name and confront this threat.

Cruz did not spare President Obama’s partners-in-peace in Iran: “The regime in Tehran and their proxies may be Shiite and ISIS and its affiliates Sunni, but they are the cause of this problem,” he said.

Bloomberg News quotes Ohio governor John Kasich saying, “I think we do have a responsibility in terms of taking some more folks in,” before asserting the refugee crisis is “fundamentally an issue that Europe has to come to grips with.”

In a CNN interview, Senator Rand Paul declared the United States was “a welcoming nation, and we have accepted a lot of refugees, and we will continue to do so. But we also can’t accept the whole world, so I think there are some limits.”

Paul mentioned a few specific instances where taking in large numbers of refugees has not worked out well for the United States, and questioned the wisdom of granting permanent asylum to the very people who would be needed to rebuild a war-torn country. “We did this with Iraq, where we won the war, but then we accepted 60,000 Iraqi refugees into our country, some of which wish us harm and tried to attack us,” he recalled. “Same way with Somalia. We’ve received so many immigrants and refugees from Somalia that many of them are from the faction going back to Syria to fight against us.”

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has refused to make a statement on the Syrian refugee crisis, because he considers the question “hypothetical” – which will be difficult ground to hold, when there are hundreds of thousands of actual migrants clamoring for resettlement right now, and international demands for the United States to take more of them immediately.

“I’m not president today and I can’t be president today,” Walker told ABC News.  “Everybody wants to talk about hypotheticals; there is no such thing as a hypothetical.”

Walker did, however, say that the ultimate solution to the problem would be defeating ISIS: “The core problem is under the Obama-Clinton doctrine America is leading from behind, that has empowered ISIS to take the territory they have in Iraq and continue to have the presence they have in Syria.”

Toward that end, Walker called for a no-fly safe zone in Syria, and said it was important to send a clear message between now, and his prospective swearing-in as President, that “we’re going to push back on ISIS.” This might not have much of an effect on the migration plans of Syrians who are fleeing the regime of Bashar Assad, which has a penchant for dropping chemical weapons and barrel bombs on them.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did not take a position on accepting more Syrian refugees, turning the question from a voter into a critique of Obama foreign policy. He said Obama is “responsible for a lot of what went on there, not all of it, but he’s responsible for not keeping his word,” according to CNN’s transcription of is remarks, declaring the refugee crisis to be “a result of the President’s weakness.”

Christie described the drowned Syrian toddler as “a symbol for this country’s inaction and this President’s deceit. He said he wouldn’t let this happen and then he did. We can’t be known as the country that doesn’t keep its word. America’s got to be known as the country that can keep its word.”


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