Fear, compassion clash as America debates refugee policy

Ali and Aaminah (pseudonyms) came to the U.S. 10 months ago after their infant son was killed in an airstrike in Damascus, Syria. The lives of thousands of Syrians hang in the balance as the U.S. weighs the risks associated with committing to a higher volume of refugees.
Ali and Aaminah (pseudonyms) came to the U.S. 10 months ago after their infant son was killed in an airstrike in Damascus, Syria. The lives of thousands of Syrians hang in the balance as the U.S. weighs the risks associated with committing to a higher volume of refugees. McClatchy

The politics of fear is back in the wake of last week’s attacks in Paris, headed for a collision with the politics of compassion.

So far the loudest voices, the ones who say keep Syrian refugees out of the United States, are getting the attention. But in deeply divided 2015 America, the newest clash between two age-old political motivators – the desire to be protected and the desire to be tolerant – will only widen the chasm.

“It’s the perfect case of political polarization,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution. “Red states don’t want Syrian refugees, and blue states are willing to take the risk.”

Compromise is hard, and appealing to both the gut and the heart when people are scared their kids may not return home from school or are afraid to go to church is a tough balancing act.

Consensus-builders in Congress struggle. They’re being careful, with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both Republicans, using words such as “pause” and “moratorium” this week to define their views on allowing an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees into this country, as President Barack Obama has pledged.

At the very least, it strikes me that we need a pause or a moratorium because the American people are quite concerned and upset about the possibility of terrorists coming into our country through some kind of refugee program.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky

The House of Representatives plans a vote Thursday that would make it harder for Syrian refugees to resettle in the United States. Few lawmakers are satisfied, though. Some, emphasizing security, want a ban. Others, emphasizing empathy, want refugees to feel welcome. Expect elected officials to argue their points of view throughout the 2016 campaign year.

What’s happening here is further evidence that Americans really don’t live in united states these days, and the crevice appears to be growing wider. In one corner are the more conservative cities and states where the minority population is smaller, government is leaner and blunt talk sells. They’re communities that have seen themselves at war against all kinds of threats for years – against their religion, morals, factory jobs and, at the core, the way of life they’ve nurtured for generations.

In a Bloomberg Politics national poll conducted since the Paris attacks and released Wednesday, 53 percent of Americans said resettlement of Syrian refugees should stop. The partisan split was clear; 69 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats felt that way.

Consider the governors who eagerly declared they want no more Syrian refugees. Thirty of the 31 are Republicans, most from what are known as red states, where they had no trouble finding backing.

After Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina called Monday for a halt to Syrian refugees entering his state, the state’s 10 Republican members of Congress issued a strong statement of support. Fifty-nine Syrian refugees have settled in his state since last year.

It is important that our states unite to challenge the Obama administration on its weak foreign policy.

North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, in a joint statement

This fear is hardly new, said other red state stalwarts.

“That has been a huge issue in Idaho for months and months,” Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said of the refugee issue. “Constituents’ reaction is a very rational reaction.”

Idaho has refugee resettlement agencies in Boise and Twin Falls. Crapo is up for re-election next year, and he hopes to avoid a primary challenge from the right. In Twin Falls, there’s an effort promoting a referendum to end the refugee program, though the mayors of both cities support it. In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, Idaho received 935 refugees, including 35 from Syria.

Jump to blue America and there’s a notably different hue, an attitude born of America’s decades-old attempt to erase nativist stains that have taken so long to fade. Although most in this country have immigrant roots, there’s an ugly history of trying to keep certain people out. Not to mention the still-fresh legacy of racial segregation in the South.

More than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated during World War II to 10 internment camps away from their homes on the West Coast.

Immigration laws at the time placed quotas on how many refugees could enter the United States from elsewhere. In 1938, more than 300,000 Germans, most of them Jewish, sought entry into this country, and about 20,000 were approved.

The specter of unbridled xenophobia is one that politicians, particularly in immigrant-rich states, desperately want to avoid.

Democrats tend to be leading this charge, though they pay attention to concerns about safety. Their pitch today: Screen refugees with extra care. Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri urged Washington to “implement the strongest possible safeguards.” Gov. Jerry Brown of California wants Obama to “both uphold America’s traditional role as a place of asylum, but also ensure that anyone seeking refuge in America is fully vetted in a sophisticated and utterly reliable way.”

A third political dynamic is also in the mix. The closer constituents are to attractive targets, the more fear seems real.

In the Bloomberg poll, Democrats were more likely than Republicans – 46 percent to 12 percent – to think the United States should move ahead with its plans for resettlement without religious screening. Overall, 28 percent of Americans felt that way.

A third political dynamic is also in the mix. The closer constituents are to attractive targets, the more fear seems real. In Carroll County, Md., about an hour’s drive from Washington, school officials canceled field trips to the nation’s capital until further notice. Anne Arundel County, Md., officials canceled two international trips high school students were scheduled to take.

What all this means in the days ahead is that tough talkers will get the most attention. Obama gave Republicans new ammunition, charging, “Apparently they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America.”

Republican presidential candidates pounced. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Wednesday that Obama should “come back and insult me to my face.” Real estate mogul Donald Trump began radio ads in the early primary states of South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire pledging to stop the refugee program.

President Barack Obama wants to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States in the next year. About 2,200 have been permitted into this country in the past four years.

Ultimately, whether the calls for security or compassion prevail depends on two factors: events and whether leaders project competence.

Events trigger sharp rhetoric, but that often tends to fade. A McClatchy-Marist Poll in recent weeks found 63 percent of registered voters are more worried that they or someone close to them will be a victim of gun violence. Twenty-nine percent are more afraid of being a victim of a terrorist attack.

The more likely Republican line of political attack will involve competence. Ronald Reagan in 1980 benefited from a perception that President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy was inept. Hostages were being held in Iran and an American effort to rescue them was a fiasco.

As this week went on, Republicans turned to the competence issue, and Democrats fought back. “There is a lot of misinformation about the type of people who are fleeing from persecution,” said Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington.

The U.S. State Department prioritizes the highest-risk and most-vulnerable groups of people – children, the elderly, and victims of torture or abuse. About half of all Syrian refugees are children.

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, after a White House briefing Tuesday

The battle is in the states not clearly red or blue. Governors face little political risk, since only 12 face re-election next year. The only Democratic governor to call for a halt to Syrian refugees, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, is running for the Senate in a too-close-to-call race against Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

The congressional outlook is more muddled. All 435 House of Representatives seats will be in play, but most are in carefully drawn districts where one party dominates. In the Senate, Republicans are defending 24 seats to the Democrats’ 10.

Seven of those Republican seats are in states Obama won in 2012, and all but Iowa are regarded as possible Democratic wins. In most of those races, the incumbents are being careful.

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the vulnerable Republicans, said Wednesday he’d like a “pause” in the refugee program.

How will it affect his election? “I don’t know,” he said.

Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer, Bill Dentzer of the Idaho Statesman, Jeremy B. White of The Sacramento Bee and Tori Whitley of the Washington Bureau contributed.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid