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ew Year’s Day, 2016, brought news that hundreds of female New Year’s revelers in Cologne, Germany, had been encircled, robbed, and sexually assaulted by groups of "North African" and "Arab" looking men. The news was a blow to the advocates of Willkommenskultur—an ethos of openness and care that took hold in Germany in the summer of 2015 as thousands of Syrians made their way through Europe in search of asylum. Drawing parallels between the Syrian refugee crisis and the displacement of millions of Europeans after World War II, voluntary organizations (and some government officials) pushed back against anti-immigrant sentiment, positing refugees as deserving victims and as potential contributors to the German economy. Discourses of deservingness, however, have proven fragile in the wake of events in Cologne. Opponents of refugee resettlement throughout Europe have seized upon this episode, and the terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015, as evidence of the great perils that await Europe if refugee flows continue.
This resurgence of hostility toward refugees in Europe has put a gloss of respectability on the anti-refugee hysteria that began to surface in the US last summer. The rather sudden rise of anti-refugee sentiment in the U.S. merits some attention. While refugee resettlement has elicited controversy in the past, it has received relatively little attention in the US since the 1990s, in sharp contrast to Europe. This lack of political salience has less to do with the innate generosity of Americans than with the government’s tight control over refugee resettlement. The US prides itself on resettling more refugees than any other country, but the reality is that refugees constitute a very small fraction of annual authorized immigration to the US: between 1990 and 2013, the US admitted over 24 million legal immigrants, but only 1.8 million refugees (by comparison, there are believed to be 10-11 million unauthorized immigrants residing in the U.S. today). For the past 15 years, the US has consistently failed to meet its own refugee quotas of 70,000-80,000 per year on account of more stringent vetting procedures introduced after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The sharp drop in refugee admissions after 2001 occurred despite the American government’s direct involvement in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that displaced millions of people. Only after sharp criticism from veterans of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did the government create an immigrant visa for those who assisted US troops in those conflicts; even now, the resettlement of these individuals and their families continues to be blocked by bureaucratic inaction. One might say, then, that refugees have been non-controversial in the US because the American people have not had to shoulder the burden of displacement from the myriad conflicts instigated or exacerbated by their government. The US has, instead, shifted that burden to other countries (e.g. Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan) that are ill-equipped to deal with humanitarian crises.
Images of thousands of Syrian refugees making their way through Europe in the summer of 2015, however, raised the possibility that the US might need to ‘step up’ and relieve refugee pressures on Europe. In September, the Obama administration, in what was treated as a grand humanitarian gesture, announced it would admit 10,000 Syrian refugees—out of an estimated 11 million displaced by the conflict in Syria. Even this paltry number was too much for Republican lawmakers, who quickly mobilized to block this plan. Likewise, Republican governors began to vocalize concerns about refugee resettlement in their states. Such concerns could be dismissed as fearmongering in October, but they were framed as entirely reasonable and commonsensical in the wake of Paris and Cologne. By November 17, twenty nine Republican governors (and one Democrat) had pledged to block refugee resettlement in their states.
It is hard to miss the deep current of Islamophobia that animates opposition to Syrian refugee resettlement, especially among Republicans. Republican presidential candidates, for instance, have demanded not only that Syrian resettlement cease (with exceptions made for Syrian Christians), but also that restrictions be placed on all Muslim travel into the US A whopping 74% of voters in South Carolina’s recent Republican primary indicated that they support a ban on Muslims entering the US. Leading Republican contender Donald Trump has gone even further, proposing that all Muslims living in the US be required to carry ID cards. To be sure, the animosity toward Muslims and refugees in the US is not universal, and there are voices in the US advocating for Syrian refugees. But it seems unlikely that Wilkommenskultur will take root in the US, as it did for a time in Germany. Today only around 2250 Syrians have been resettled in the US. America would like to keep it that way.