Letter to the Editor: Getting our facts straight on refugees
In the era of alternative facts, we should not forget that some claims are just flat wrong.
The 19th century writer Finley Peter Dunne first said that it is the job of newspapers to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In essence, the press ought to use truth as a tool to prevent abuse of the powerless by the powerful.
So it was much to my distress when I found a recent article published in this newspaper distorting the truth in order to hurt the most powerless group of people on the planet: refugees. Namely, this article by Austin Cirillo, wherein he makes the fantastical claim that “it is..more humanitarian...to not accept Syrian refugees.” This is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence.
Unfortunately, this is not what Mr. Cirillo provides. Cirillo states in his article that he is not looking “to begin an ideological debate.” On that front, he need not worry. Cirillo’s mistakes are not mistakes of ideology; they are mistakes of fact.
Bountiful research has been conducted about refugees, and any cursory examination of that evidence will lead to the rather obvious conclusion that it is indeed a humanitarian positive to grant asylum to refugees.
Like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Cirillo’s argument comes in three parts: (1) hosting refugees in the United States is too expensive, (2) accepting refugees causes a brain drain that hurts Syria and (3) refugees are dangerous. In this article, I will explain why the evidence disproves each claim.
The first and most conclusively wrong claim Cirillo makes is that refugees are too expensive. The truth is quite the opposite: refugees consistently benefit the economies of their host countries.
Before I present economic research to that end, it is important to note the source of Cirillo’s claim here. He cites the Center for Immigration Studies, which stated that it costs $64,000 to host a refugee in the United States for five years. The first problem here is the source of the information. CIS has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which reports that the group was “conceived and created” by John Tanton, “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.” This conclusion is shared by the notable left-wing rag “The Wall Street Journal.” So far, Cirillo is one-for-one in citing unreliable sources.
But the more important flaw in this economic argument is that it only looks at one side of a two-sided coin. If you only look at money spent, any policy is a bad idea. Hosting refugees is an investment in the economy. They do cost money to relocate and care for, but they give back in spades through the activity they generate.
This is well backed up by research. This study of refugees in Cleveland by the refugee aid organization HIAS found that refugees generate ten times as much new economic activity as they take in public assistance. This report from the Federal Reserve found that immigrants, including refugees, increase the wages of native workers and do not cost them jobs.
We find the same results in other advanced economies, as seen in this study of Denmark from a professor at the University of Copenhagen and this study of the EU more broadly from the International Monetary Fund. These trends even hold in poorer countries, as evidenced by these studies of refugees in Tanzania, Lebanon and Uganda.
But, Cirillo would say, the point is not that refugees hurt the economy of the host country per se, but rather that neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan could better afford them than the poor United States. Cirillo actually contends “for every refugee that we ‘humanitarianly’ save by accepting into our country, we are depriving the livelihood of 11 others,” basing this on the fact that a refugee in America will get twelve times more in assistance than one in Lebanon. This argument is patently absurd.
It is seemingly based on the idea that all money that could possibly go to refugees comes from some global, zero-sum pool. If the U.S. spends money on refugees, that's money that Lebanon can no longer also spend on refugees.
Of course, such a pool does not exist; every country can host as many refugees as it wants, regardless of the spending of others. If Cirillo’s argument were true, then we would expect Syria’s neighbors to start taking in eleven times more refugees now that the U.S. has actually stopped taking in Syrians. No one actually thinks this is the case.
Cirillo’s second argument is that “we are further destabilizing Syria’s future as a nation by accepting refugees,” removing educated Syrians from the country and thus impeding the country's development. There are two problems here. First, Cirillo conflates refugees with other kinds of migrants. A key difference between the two is that refugees generally plan to return to their home country after whatever conflict drove them out ends.
So when Syria is in any state resembling peace, then educated Syrians can return and rebuild their country. And secondly, it is simply unrealistic to expect Syrians with a college education to develop the economy or improve governance in the middle of a brutal civil war.
Remember, Cirillo claims it is more humanitarian to leave innocent men, women and children in the middle of a war that has seen the mass slaughter of civilians, the use of chemicals weapons and a “complete meltdown of humanity” according to the UN. There is no way that educated Syrians could rebuild their country under these conditions. Whatever humanitarian appeal Cirillo is grasping for is self-evidently false.
Finally, Cirillo argues that Syrian refugees are too dangerous to bring into the United States because “places like Europe have had a crime epidemic” stemming from refugees. Before we see that this claim is false, it’s important to note that whatever propensity for crime refugees have, it has no bearing on whether granting asylum is the humanitarian thing to do, which is the focus of Cirillo’s article.
When we look to the substance of this claim, we find once again that Cirillo is getting his information from right-wing propaganda mills. In several instances, Cirillo cites statistics from the notably Islamophobic Gatestone Institute, which has published articles with titles like “Documented: Obama's ‘Traditional Muslim Bias’ against Christians.”
But it’s not just the source of the statistics that is a problem here — it’s the logical fallacies with which Cirillo analyzes them. He states that because Sweden has seen an increase in rape since 1975 and because some areas in Berlin have seen a spike in crime in recent years, refugees must be the cause of such trends. This is a classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Without actually connecting the variables, he concludes that one causes the other.
But when one looks at sound research from actual credible sources, they find that refugees are not the sort of dangerous boogeyman they are so often made out to be. In Germany, a report from the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation found that refugees commit crimes at the same rate as native Germans, with some police data concluding that refugees actually commit less crime than natives.
In the United States, refugees are (or, at this point, were) subject to a two-year, twenty-step, comprehensive vetting process, and the total number of Americans killed by refugee terrorists is zero. Overall, Alan Sklansky, a Stanford University criminologist, reports that there is not “any evidence that refugees, in particular, contribute significantly to crime in the United States.” If you ignore the canards from right-wing fearmongers, refugees are nothing to be afraid of.
Generations from now, our descendants will look back to now to see how we responded to the unprecedented refugee crisis we find ourselves in. If we continue down the path the president has led us on by relying on lies and fear instead of evidence and compassion, then we will be no different from past generations who stood by and watched the Rwandan genocide or turned away Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany. We ought to learn from the past so we are not condemned to repeat it.
Bobby Zitzmann is a freshman in the School of International Service.