After the mid-November terrorist attacks in Paris and the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, there has been growing momentum to clamp down on travel and immigration to the United States, in the hope that tougher measures might prevent any further violence. In its less extreme versions, the impulse is understandable, but Congress and the Obama administration need to tread carefully. Openness is the foundation of American economic strength and its diplomatic influence, and each step in the other direction should be taken with an awareness of the true costs.
This dilemma is not a new one. It even predates 9/11. In 1998, a Pentagon-chartered commission led by former Senator Gary Hart (D-CO) and former Congressman Warren Rudman (R-NH) warned that the very source of U.S. prosperity and global leadership—its openness to goods, ideas, and people moving across borders—also left the country vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Although Washington has done much in the last 15 years to reduce these vulnerabilities, the dilemma remains.
Consider the current congressional effort to reduce the number of refugees the United States admits from Syria, large chunks of which the Islamic State (ISIS) controls. The United States has accepted just over 2,000 Syrian refugees since the civil war began there, a fraction of the tens of thousands that have poured into Europe. In September, U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to admit another 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.
In response, most of the Republican presidential candidates have called for a ban on all Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Likewise, dozens of governors have said they would no longer welcome Syrian refugees in their states. And the House of Representatives last month passed legislation that would require the director of the FBI and other senior security officials to personally guarantee that any new refugee from Syria or Iraq does not pose a threat, which would effectively kill the program.
The additional restrictions on the table are enormously short-sighted. Apart from the United States’ humanitarian obligations, refugees have long been today there are some 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants, and their average income exceeds that of native-born Americans. The large diaspora community has helped in rebuilding economic and political relations between the United States and Vietnam, such that Vietnam is now one of the founding members of the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.
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