When a 3-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy’s body washed up on a beach in September, killed after the flimsy boat he and his family were in capsized off the coast of Turkey long before they could make it to European shores, average people everywhere stopped and took notice of the long-ignored Syrian refugee problem.
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Here in the United States in particular, where it’s easy to ignore the rest of the world and concern oneself (if at all) with problems closer to home, the image of Aylan Kurdi’s limp body drove home the plight of Syrians trying to escape the carnage in their country. Under criticism that the U.S. was hardly throwing open its doors to those desperate to escape, President Barack Obama pledged within a week of Kurdi’s death that America would take in another 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year – his last in office. Given the enormous size and resources of the United States, Europeans and U.S. advocates for more immigration snickered at that number, and later that month, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year, up from 70,000, and that total would rise to 100,000 in 2017.
But ISIS just signed the death warrant of more Syrian children like Kurdi in the course of its Friday assault on Paris – not that they would be concerned. The key news is that one of eight attackers was a Syrian-passport holder who arrived in Greece on Oct. 3 on a boat from Turkey, and then was registered as seeking asylum in Serbia on Oct. 7, according to various reports.
While cautioning that the authenticity of his passport must still be verified, French prosecutors have identified him as 25-year-old Ahmad al Mohammad, born in Idlib, Syria.
Al Mohammed has quickly become the example that conservatives in Europe and Republicans in the U.S. were seeking as proof of why a more liberal immigration policy is a mistake – lest you want all of your music and sports venues to be turned into the Bataclan and Stade de France, the sites of some Friday’s deadliest attacks.
The governors of 27 U.S. states, all but one of them Republicans, have said they oppose allowing Syrian refugees into their states.
Obama, while visiting Turkey on Monday, responded to criticism of his plans by saying that it would be "shameful" and "not American" for the U.S. to close its doors to Muslim refugees.
Almost all of the leading Republican candidates slammed Obama’s plans to bring in more refugees, particularly from Syria. Real estate mogul Donald Trump, one of the leading candidates in polls for the Republican nomination, claimed that Obama wanted to bring in 250,000 refugees, grossly exaggerating the numbers he committed to.
"Our president wants to take in 250,000 from Syria. I mean, think of it, 250,000 people,” Trump said. Actually, it was a Fox News commentator who started the misinformation campaign using the 250,000 figure, which has no basis in fact but has been picked up by all the Republican candidates.
Several Republicans vying for the nomination take it further. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said in a statement that the U.S. should “immediately declare a halt to any plans to bring refugees that may have been infiltrated by ISIS to the United States.” Mike Huckabee is now calling for a moratorium on admissions of any refugees coming from countries where the Islamic State or Al-Qaida have a “strong presence,” presumably encompassing countries like Iraq, Libya and Yemen as well. “Close our borders instead of Guantanamo,” he said on his website.
Even before the Paris attacks, immigration has been shaping up as one of the key issues of the 2016 presidential election, and Americans are talking about it as never before. Trump says he will gradually deport 11 million undocumented people in the U.S., the majority of them from Mexico, giving some a chance to re-enter legally. Even the most conservative Republicans called him out on this during a televised debate last week, suggesting mass deportations were both impossible and “not the American way.”
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s national security adviser said on Sunday that the administration is still planning to continue with plans to bring thousands of Syrian refugees to safety in the U.S. “We have very expansive screening procedures for all Syrian refugees who have come to the United States,” Rhodes said on "Meet the Press." "There’s a very careful vetting process that includes our intelligence community, our national Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security, so we can make sure that we’re carefully screening anybody who comes to the United States."
Of course, everyone knows that no vetting process is foolproof. Whether 10,000 or 30 times that number, after Paris, Obama’s plan for taking in Syrian refugees may end up for the Democrats as more of a political liability than a mark of moral fortitude. It will provide an easy target for Republicans wanting to ride the wave of fear and disgust that has naturally resulted from Friday’s massacre. Thanks to ISIS’ brutality, it will be very difficult to convince Americans that their country’s open arms to the world’s downtrodden as emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – is an invitation that not only still stands, but overrides the risk of letting in a few bad eggs along with innocents like Aylan Kurdi.