The opposition to Syrian refugees for fear of terrorist infiltration both reminds me of old opposition to Vietnamese refugees for fear of communists, and reveals how native Americans (and some immigrants too) lack knowledge of immigration laws and therefore fail to appreciate how much easier it would be for terrorists to enter the U.S. via other routes, not as refugees.
The fear of terrorists, or in the case of the Vietnamese, communists pretending to be refugees is not new. When Vietnamese refugees fleeing communist forces first arrived in the U.S. in 1975, the Ford administration dispersed them out among four different military installations: Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
A New York Times story dated April 30, 1975, reported from the area around Eglin Air Force Base, shows that locals were not very happy, for a lot of reasons, but one of it was fear of infiltration. (There’s one person citing risk of disease, but that’s for another day.) In the story entitled “The Vietnamese Are Coming and the Town of Niceville, Fla., Doesn't Like It,” the reporter found a high school 12th grade psychology class where students “said they were frightened that the refugees would attempt to convert them to Communism.”
“But they’re not Communists,” one student argued. “They’re coming here because they’re running from Communists.”
“It doesn’t matter,” came the response. “They’re Vietnamese, aren’t they?”
And it’s not just high school kids. A 40-year-old real estate agent said the same thing.
“How do you know we’re not getting the bad guys?,” he asked. “You can’t say for sure. Nobody can, and Lord knows we got enough Communist infiltration now.”
Replace “Communist” with “terrorist” and “Vietnamese” with “Syrian” and you have the exact argument being made today.
The fear, hate, or opposition of a place, has been so contaminating that it becomes the fear, hate, and opposition to the people who come from that place.
It’s a good thing the United States did not succumb to fear back then.
There’s even a bill offered by Sen. Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate that would bar entrance to people who come from Middle East countries “that contains territory substantially controlled by a foreign terrorist organization.” First of all, that approach is all backward; refugees most in need of help are precisely those coming from such areas. Second, it shows that the fear of a place has spread to the fear of people coming from that place.
Third, if there had been such a law, we would not have received any immigrants from a plethora of terrorism dictatorships. Ironically, Cuba was designated a state sponsor of terrorism from 1982 until the Obama administration removed it in May, so if the Cruz bill had been applied globally, some 1.5 million Cuban immigrants would have been prohibited from entry.
What’s currently missing from the debate, however, is how much a terrorist does not need to pretend to be a refugee to enter the United States. It’s much much easier for them to try to get a non-immigrant visa. Let me explain.
Generally speaking, there are two ways a foreign citizen can enter the United States legally. One is with some sort of an immigrant visa, meaning a visa to enter the U.S. now and to live forever. A refugee is an immigrant. The other way is with a non-immigrant visa, meaning they can enter the U.S. but eventually will have to leave. Tourists, business people, students, are non-immigrants.
Known terrorists can’t enter the U.S. on any visa anyway, but for a potential infiltrator, a refugee visa is way harder to get. You have to prove yourself to be a refugee. Yes, that’s true. Other than the mass import of Vietnamese refugees in 1975 and of Cuban refugees with the Mariel boatlift, all other refugees have been subjected to verification by the U.S. Many were refused (by the late 1980s, when Western countries developed refugee fatigue, at much as 20% of Vietnamese in camps in Southeast Asia had been rejected by every country). If you are planning an attack, that is such a wrong way to try entering the country.
In the U.S. and until San Bernardino, other than homegrown terrorists (such as the Boston Marathon bombers, radicalized while here), imported terrorists have been on non-immigrant visa. Of the 19 September 11 terrorists, 14 came to the United States on six-month tourist visas, four came on business visas, and one came on a student visa. The would-be shoe bomber, Richard Reid, was on the plane to the U.S. on a visa waiver because he is a U.K. citizen.
The one exception is Tashfeen Malik, the San Bernardino shooter. She entered the U.S. on a K-1 fiancee visa. It means she had to go through fingerprinting and a background check. However, the process the Syrian refugees had to clear is much harder.
A non-immigrant visa is way easier. The only way to be denied a tourist visa or a business visa is if the U.S. consulate officer suspects you actually will stay in the U.S. and won't go home. If you can show property ownership, or a good job, or family ties, or preferably all three, the consul will believe you plan to return and will approve your application.
An immigrant visa application starts with a thick stack of documents and several back-and-forth with both the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. State Department. That's what Malik went through.
A refugee application is even worse. Syrian refugees have to be interviewed by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and USCIS. They go through screening by the National Counterrorism Center, FBI, and Homeland Security. They must pass medical check.
A non-immigrant visa application, on the other hand, is one sheet of paper, and one interview with a consular officer. That's it.
That makes more sense. If some criminals are planning an attack on the United States, they would very unlikely choose the hardest, most uncertain way of even entering the country. Unless we are serious about blocking tourist, business, or student visa from such countries as Saudi Arabia (the country where most 9/11 terrorists held their passports and where Malik lived most of her life), barring refugees would be not only wrong-headed but also ineffective in blocking terrorists.
Hao Nhien Vu is a regular columnist for Voice of OC. Recently, he authored a popular blog about Little Saigon politics called The Bolsavik. Before that, he was an editor for Nguoi Viet Daily News.