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Opinion | Sasha Chanoff

Trump, refugees, and the truth

Nahed Alsalkini hugged her daughter before heading to her English as a Second Language class in Tukwila, Wash.
Nahed Alsalkini hugged her daughter before heading to her English as a Second Language class in Tukwila, Wash. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times via AP)

To hear Donald Trump tell it, our refugee program is a terrorist attack waiting to happen.

“This could be a better, bigger more horrible version than the legendary Trojan horse ever was,” Trump has said about accepting Syrian refugees.

“Lock your doors, folks,” he added. “We don’t know anything about them. We don’t know where they came from, who they are. There’s no documentation. We have incompetent government people letting them in by the thousands and who knows, maybe it’s ISIS.”

Those comments are simply wrong. In fact, we already have a kind of “extreme vetting” for refugees, though perhaps not quite as draconian as Trump proposed this week for all immigrants. The nonprofit organization I lead, RefugePoint, is involved with refugee resettlement every day of the week.

Here’s what really happens.

First, we handpick those who might be eligible. Under current practice, the US considers refugees who are survivors of violence and torture, unaccompanied children, women at risk, and others fleeing terror. RefugePoint typically spends at least a year working with clients, including visiting them where they now reside, before we recommend them as qualified candidates for resettlement in the US. Simply put, we do not recommend people we do not know.

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Once we, in coordination with the United Nations Refugee Agency, make our recommendations to the US government, resettlement candidates go through intense multiple screening interviews by specially trained US government affiliates and Department of Homeland Security officers. They also undergo vetting by the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and other relevant agencies. US officials look for misrepresentation and fraud, inconsistencies, criminality, and any links to terrorism or terror organizations. On average, it takes two years for a refugee to receive final approval and travel to the US. No other immigrants among the million plus coming annually to the US through our regular legal immigration channels go through such extensive examination. If chosen, they almost always come to love the country that has saved them from desperate conditions.

It’s hugely unlikely that a terrorist would choose to undergo this kind of scrutiny and wait years in a process that is fraught with uncertainty every step of the way. Why, then, would someone villify refugees as potential terrorists? Probably because they’re an easy target. Attacking other foreigners who come here — on tourist, student, or work-related visas, for example — is a non-starter for all but the most blatant xenophobes. They don’t lend themselves to fear mongering the way refugees do.

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For many decades, the United States has opened its arms to far more refugees than any other country. They have enriched our society, added to our diversity, and augmented our national ethos of hard work, resilience, and resourcefulness.

Logic tells us we want to keep our doors open, not shut them. But logic can waver in the face of hate or fear. So can humanitarianism, and though there are persuasive economic and social arguments for resettling refugees, the underlying motivation is, of course, humanitarian.

In trying times, we have to think about who we really are. Years ago, as a young humanitarian aid worker in Africa, I was part of a team sent to rescue a group of massacre survivors. When other desperate survivors showed up unexpectedly, I argued against taking them as well. If we did, there was a good chance our mission would fail. I was adamant, until a colleague asked me, “Are we humanitarians or are we not?” There was only one answer to that question.

The matter of welcoming refugees goes to the heart of who we are. In this campaign, we’re in the midst of deciding whether we are really worthy of the values our nation has long professed: inclusiveness, generosity, compassion, and concern for the oppressed. Or will we embrace tribalism, fear, and resentment — and turn our backs on those in need?

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Are we humanitarians or are we not?

The refugee crisis today is unprecedented in human history: 65 million people have been displaced worldwide. More than 13 million have been displaced because of the conflict in Syria.

President Obama has promised to resettle 10,000 from Syria. As of July 31, we have resettled only 7,551 from Syria. We must do better.

The first step is to dispel fear. We don’t have a problem vetting these displaced people. Our problem, in this time of xenophobia, is finding our own moral center.

Sasha Chanoff is founder and executive director of RefugePoint and co-author of “From Crisis to Calling: Finding Your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions.”