America's Ridiculous Refugee Debate

America's Ridiculous Refugee Debate
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If you’ve watched President Obama’s various speeches and press conferences over the past few days, you can be forgiven for coming away with the distinct impression that he doesn’t like you.

First came the president’s robotic, tone-deaf press conference in Antayla, Turkey, a mere three days after the horrific Paris terror attacks by ISIS. Appearing peeved that he even had to discuss it, Obama repeatedly defended his ISIS strategy in somnolent tones, blandly describing the slaughter of 129 innocents as “a setback.”

Plagued by repeated incredulous questions by usually friendly reporters—“Sir, you can’t really think you don’t need to change anything, can you?” was the basic gist—Obama finally got a bit heated: Not at ISIS, of course, but at his critics back home.

Those “pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning,” he declared, were mere sloganeers. Those who doubted his strategy on the issue of Syrian refugees, meanwhile, were either bigoted or naïve. It was not, to put it mildly, confidence inspiring: Over the course of the next day, a whopping 31 governors alerted the White House that under current conditions, they opposed the placement of Syrian refugees in their states.

It was, more than anything, a stunning vote of no confidence—one that might have caused a more introspective person to take pause. Instead, our president doubled down. During a conference call with various governors Tuesday night, administration officials refused to expand information-sharing about the refugee settlement process, while White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough insisted, as Bloomberg View put it, “that the federal government saw no reason to alter the current method of processing refugees.”

For his part, Obama opened his heart, attempted to understand where his opponents were coming from, and turned on some good old-fashioned charm. Just kidding! Visibly irritated, he ripped his opposition, lumping them together as a bunch of sniveling cowards afraid of widows and orphans.

"We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic,” he said. “We don't make good decisions if they're based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks."

There you have it, folks: If you doubt any portion of our current refugee policy, you’re “hysterical.” Never mind that a recent poll showed 13 percent of Syrian refugees declaring a “positive” or “somewhat positive” view of ISIS, or that at least one of the Paris attackers apparently arrived in France posing as a refugee. Never mind the 26 charges of terrorism brought up against foreign-born individuals in the U.S. in the past year, as Sen. Jeff Sessions documented this week, or the fact that in October, FBI Director James Comey testified that our current system likely can’t effectively vet Syrian refugees.

More importantly, never mind the fact that opposition to current refugee protocols doesn’t necessarily translate into opposition to helping refugees altogether; had Obama led with an acknowledgment of the system’s weaknesses and showed genuine concern towards fixing them, we might be in a different situation today.  As it is, a new Bloomberg poll shows 53 percent of Americans opposing the current settlement plan.

Despite some less-than-artful comments by two GOP candidates—Ted Cruz suggested allowing only Christians in, while Chris Christie, clearly inspired by the “Hulk Smash!” school of public relations, said he would deny entry even to orphans under the age of 5—the concerns of the governors were largely calm, considered, and legitimate. 

Obama’s response, despite real evidence of some chinks in our vetting armor, should be unsurprising to anyone following political discourse in 2015. It consisted of public shaming, a hashtag—#RefugeesWelcome!—and one basic, overarching, so-hot-right-now message: “Trust me. You’re bigoted. Shut up.”

Aside from the obvious problem that Obama has given his skeptics approximately 22,000 reasons not to trust him, ranging from “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” to railroading the Little Sisters of the Poor, the bigger problem here is attitudinal. It is overtly hostile, paired with an obvious disdain for the American people. It refuses to consider the possibility that the other side might have even a hint of a valid point or a sliver of goodwill. Sadly, it reflects the bulk of our political discussions today.

Lately, if you disagree with someone over the smallest thing—who stole whose parking spot, for instance, or the question of whether eating nachos ultimately constitutes cultural appropriation—you can count on being called “hateful” or “bigoted” before you have the time to slap on a highly offensive sombrero. Obama’s not the only politician guilty of this, of course: Hillary Clinton has compared Republicans to terrorists and labeled refugee policy skeptics as “hateful,” while Donald Trump, that marvelous master of always assuming the worst, recently called dissenting Iowa voters “stupid” to their faces.

And so it is that we live in a world where actual journalists who get paid actual money for their work compare reasonable refugee policy skeptics holding reasonable national security concerns to cruel hatemongers turning away baby Jesus from the inn. There is no middle ground, you see; there is only bigotry. I’ve had more thoughtful debates with my 3-year-old, and he honestly thinks one day he’s doing to grow a full set of T. rex teeth.

Some have argued that America’s messy refugee debate is a distraction from the larger fight against ISIS. I see it as an important warning sign. The challenges, after all, might get greater from here on out. A country can’t successfully function this way.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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