It took only days for some Republicans to turn the violent Israel-Hamas conflict in the Middle East into a domestic immigration policy issue.
On Friday, two House Republicans — Representatives Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin and Andy Ogles of Tennessee — introduced the “Guaranteeing Aggressors Zero Admission Act,” dubbing it the GAZA Act, that would prevent the American government from allowing displaced Palestinians to settle in the United States. The full text of the legislation hasn’t yet been released but it makes “ineligible for visas, admission, or parole aliens that are holders of passports issued by the Palestinian Authority,” according to its description.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential primary candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis repeated the sentiment of rejecting displaced Palestinians several times over the weekend, including on the Sunday news show “Face the Nation.” On X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, DeSantis wrote: “It is not our role to be absorbing people from Gaza. And apart from this situation, if people with anti-Semitic, anti-American, or other toxic views are trying to come into our country, they should not be admitted.” At a campaign event in Iowa, the governor said: “We should not import people from Gaza to our country. Neighboring Arab nations should open their borders and absorb them.”
Let’s be clear about that rhetoric: It’s all about the politics of fear and reducing the entire population of Gaza to a single concept — the terror that Hamas stands for. Any politician who conflates Gazans — and the rest of the Palestinian population — with the terrorist group is being willfully ignorant. War cries out for nuance, historical context, and moral clarity. The US government has a role to play to ensure that Gaza’s humanitarian needs are met, and that has to include how America can offer safe haven to those fleeing Gaza.
The war began on Oct. 7 when Hamas terrorists killed at least 1,300 Israelis, most of them civilians. It was Israel’s deadliest day in the history of the young country. Israel wants to eliminate the Hamas organization, and it is said to be planning a ground invasion. The conflict has left Gaza, where at least 2,750 people have been killed, completely isolated from humanitarian relief. More than a million Gazans have already been displaced, according to the United Nations, and those who remain are struggling with food shortages. Body bags are running short and hospitals are expected to run out of fuel in the next 24 hours.
Why should the United States open its doors to some of those displaced Gazans after proper vetting? For one, because it’s the right thing to do. Second, nearly 70 percent of Americans surveyed strongly support the United States providing refuge for those fleeing serious prosecution and torture, according to a recent poll from the National Immigration Forum in partnership with the Bullfinch Group. That number is 55 percent for Republicans.
“Blanket calls to ban refugees on the basis of their religion or nationality go against our values and do not keep us safer,” Jennie Murray, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, said in a statement. “Should the conflict persist, the refugee resettlement program must remain a viable option for those seeking protection.”
Any preemptive talk of a ban on Palestinians is hypothetical anyway, according to what Alex Nowrasteh told me in an interview. He is the vice president for economic and social policy studies at the Cato Institute. “Only 56 people, or 0.09 percent of all refugees that the United States let in fiscal year 2023, are Palestinian,” he said. “Governor DeSantis’s comments and [the Republican] bill are a response to no proposal that I’ve seen to let in more Palestinians. Nor are they are a response to who the current refugee system admits.” Crucially, it takes several years and a long process for refugees to go through the international refugee system, Nowrasteh said.
Perhaps it’s too early to discuss, but there are tools that the US government could use to open the doors to Palestinians, such as the use of humanitarian parole. “There’s nothing stopping them from doing something like Temporary Protected Status” for Gazans fleeing the conflict who eventually make it to the United States, Nowrasteh said.
As for the fear of terrorism when talking about admitting Palestinians, that’s completely unfounded.
“Since 1975 and through the end of 2022 there have been four terrorists in the United States who are from Palestine,” Nowrasteh said. “The annual chance of being killed by a Palestinian terrorist on US soil during that time is about 1 in 3.4 billion per year.”
Indeed, the temptation for Republican politicians to try to make the horrific terrorist attacks in Israel a domestic national security or immigration issue is misguided.
To be sure, some in the GOP recognize that. Republican candidate and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley said during a TV appearance that “there are so many of these people who want to be free from this terrorist rule. They want to be free from all of that. And America’s always been sympathetic to the fact that you can separate civilians from terrorists. And that’s what we have to do.”
As we talk about how best to support the state of Israel to defend itself and help innocent civilians fleeing Gaza, that is the right posture.