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.

The San Bernardino attackers, Tashfeen Malik, (L), and Syed Farook are pictured passing through Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in this July 27, 2014 handout photo obtained by Reuters, December 8, 2015.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Handout / Reuters
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 a source of strength for the country. The more than 125,000 refugees accepted by the United States from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s serve as an example; 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.

U.S. relations with the Middle East might similarly be helped by a more welcoming attitude toward those fleeing the extremism that Americans rightly fear. In an open letter to Congress earlier this month, nearly two dozen of the nation’s top former defense and homeland security officials from both parties warned that barring refugees would “undermine our core objective of combatting terrorism,” whereas a more generous resettlement program would “advance U.S. national security interests by supporting the stability of our allies and partners that are struggling to host large numbers of refugees.”

The only sensible response is to take cautious steps to improve security with full awareness of the potential consequences.
Although greater openness would be a boon to the United States’ economy and foreign policy, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that no refugee could ever do harm to the United States. Although security review procedures for refugees are already extremely stringent—in fact, they are the most rigorous for any immigrant group to the United States and include years of interviews, biometric checks, and background investigations—even the best checks are only as good as the information available. Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani-born woman who helped murder 14 innocent civilians in San Bernardino, came to the United States on a K-1 fiancée visa, a heavily scrutinized visa category because of the risk of marriage fraud. But there appears to have been nothing in her record that raised any red flags. This lack of information is a particular problem for migrants from places like Syria, where the United States has limited access and no information-sharing with the government. As FBI director James Comey put it: “If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home,” but “nothing will show up because we have no record on that person.”

There are also questions about whether the United States should continue permitting visa-free travel from Europe to the United States. The so-called Visa Waiver Program (VWP), signed into law by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1986, has been a boon to transatlantic travel and to the U.S. tourism industry. Some 60 percent of all overseas travelers come from the VWP countries, adding nearly $200 billion to the U.S. economy each year. The program also sends a powerful diplomatic signal that the United States trusts its allies by not requiring their citizens to endure long lines at U.S. embassies and consulates waiting to be interviewed. The refusal of the United States to admit Poland to the VWP, for example, has been a major source of friction in the relationship for several years.

Children watch as they stand on beds in a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany, December 9, 2015.
Children watch as they stand on beds in a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany, December 9, 2015.
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
Yet the VWP does come with certain risks. As Paris again demonstrated, there is a dangerous degree of disaffection among some young second- and third-generation immigrants to Europe—citizens holding Belgian, British, French, and other European passports. The United States and Europe cooperate closely to try to track threats, and the information-sharing requirements of the VWP make it more likely that dangerous individuals will be identified and stopped. All travelers must also identify themselves in advance to the U.S. government through the online Electronic System for Travel Authorization, and are checked carefully against terrorist and criminal watch lists. As with the refugee program, however, there is no certainty that a terrorist could not somehow exploit the program to reach the United States.

The only sensible response is to take cautious steps to improve security with full awareness of the potential consequences. After 9/11, for example, Congress threatened to shut down the foreign student program because several of the hijackers had come to the United States on student visas. Cooler heads fortunately prevailed, but the effort to beef up security screening of foreign students nonetheless led to a significant drop off in foreign student enrollment for several years. Over time, the government has developed better procedures for vetting and monitoring foreign students, although they remain far from perfect. And last year, foreign student enrollment rose at the fastest pace since 1978, demonstrating that security and openness are both possible.

There are signs that at least some in Congress recognize the risks of overreacting. This week, the House passed a new visa waiver bill that would make some sensible fixes to the program—such as authorizing the administration to suspend any country that fails to share terror intelligence and traveler data fully with the United States, and speeding up the introduction of electronic passports. It is supported by the Obama administration, but it will still anger European allies because it will require any of their citizens who have travelled to Syria and Iraq, whatever the purpose, to apply for a visa before visiting the United States. The alternative—a Senate bill introduced by Senators Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)—would have effectively killed the whole program by requiring all travelers to submit biometric identifiers (a fingerprint and a photograph) to the U.S. government before travelling. Likewise, many of those who supported the original House ban on Syrian and Iraqi refugees are now having second thoughts, calling for more targeted measures that would address some of the risks without closing the door entirely.

There is no right answer to the “openness vs. security” dilemma and sometimes trade-offs are unavoidable. But recognizing that each matters greatly to the safety, prosperity, and influence of the United States is the first step to crafting intelligent policy responses.

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  • EDWARD ALDEN is the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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