When Terrorists Attack, Refugees Are Less Welcome
They’re fleeing war, sectarian conflict, and oppression in their homelands. But in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Orlando, Muslim immigrants and refugees may find it tougher to start a new life in the United States.
That’s the worry of Robert McCaw, director of government affairs for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. McCaw told TakePart that Islamophobia can increase after a mass shooting or other violent act of terrorism because people associate one extremist with an entire group of people who don’t share the same beliefs.
“American Muslims share the same dreams as all Americans: finding economic opportunity and a better life for their children,” McCaw said.
But with 49 lives lost in the horrific terrorist attack at a gay nightclub by American-born Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old who pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State, McCaw is concerned about Islamophobic rhetoric.
“Anti-immigrant activists are grabbing events from the headlines carried out by a despicable few and applying them to the vast majority of Muslim immigrants,” he said.
Corey Saylor, the director of CAIR’s Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia, said Muslim refugees face two barriers to immigration.
“In the wake of violent extremist incidents, people are operating from a place of fear rather than from a place of rational American values, and as a result, what we see is vilification of immigrants,” Saylor said. “[Syrian refugees are] looking for a place where they can be safe and secure. Instead of our hearts going out to them, we see them being classified as security threats,” he said.
These worries aren’t unfounded. In the aftermath of 9/11, Islamophobic attacks increased 1,700 percent in 2001, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks, a Pew Research Center survey found that 55 percent of Muslims said that life had become more difficult for them after the attacks.
“Typically what happens is you do tend to see an uptick in verbal abuse of those who might look or sound different,” Saylor said.
Refugees also find the immigration process changes in the wake of acts of terrorism. After 9/11, the goal of immigration policy became “round people up; prevent this from happening again; prepare for new attacks,” Rick Swartz, the founder of the National Immigration Forum, told U.S. News & World Report in 2011.
When members of Congress debate how many Muslim refugees to allow into America, CAIR and other immigrant rights groups are responsible for reminding representatives that the federal government has an 18- to 24-month vetting process to ensure that refugees are coming to America with good intentions. This vetting process is conducted by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and other national security intelligence agencies, including the CIA, McCaw said.
He added that in the wake of terrorist attacks, refugees immigrating to the U.S. and Europe are more likely to face discrimination not only in attitude but in state policy.
“We’ve seen a slew of state governors direct states not to work with the federal government in resettling refugees and attempt to deny them resources as they settle in,” McCaw said. “On top of that, we’ve seen a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes that target refugees and citizens alike.”
Hostility toward immigrants has been exacerbated by the 2016 election cycle, in which a number of candidates have tried to magnify that fear for political advantage, Saylor said.
What many Americans may not realize is that refugees who are fleeing countries where there is significant violence may come to the United States and operate as translators for American troops, Saylor said.
Despite the challenges, the U.S. is still regarded as an oasis of safety and stability for thousands of Muslim refugees trying to escape the violence rattling their home countries. “These refugees are fleeing terrorism. They’re not coming here to conduct it,” said McCaw.