A look at each presidential candidate’s view of refugee rights in the 2016 election
By Alec Hernández
With the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary now behind us, both Democrat and Republican candidates are on stages across the country in last-minute attempts to sway Americans in their direction. As is always true in an election year, foreign policy often finds its way into the center of the American political field, as candidates attempt to prove their adeptness at handling international relations and crises. It should be no surprise then that the Syrian Civil War, the fight against ISIS, and the international refugee crisis sit have become central concerns in the minds of many Americans during this presidential election cycle. As Europe, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan begin to embrace their refugee responsibilities, the world is beginning to look to the western hemisphere for even more support for the millions of displaced peoples.
However, refugees have faced a cold embrace in the United States. From state to state and city to city, public figures vary immensely in their reactions to President Obama’s wishes to welcome refugees into the country. In simpler terms, Democrats have historically been much more willing to bring refugees into the country, whereas Republicans have spoken strongly against the prospect – possibly a product of the stark partisanship that has come to define Washington.
Refugee rights and interests are human rights; it is for reason that I have compiled everything that refugees, and those who promote refugee rights, should know about the candidates in the general election
The Republican Field
I think it goes without saying how Donald Trump feels about refugees. In the field of Republicans, the multi-billionaire is notoriously xenophobic. He antics have made headlines, from building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to completely banning Muslims from entering the country until we “can figure out what’s going on.” Trump is no fan of refugees, claiming that they will only fuel domestic terrorism and add to what he thinks is a “Muslim problem” in America.
Appealing to his Christian Texan roots, President Bush’s younger brother thinks that it is America’s responsibility to protect Syrian Christians – he just does not want them here. Like most other Republicans, he is wary of “failed” vetting processes, and is critical of Obama’s suggestions.
Like Bush, Cruz has considered allowing Christian refugees to settle temporarily in the United States, but is skeptical of the United States welcoming refugees. Much more outspoken than his opponents (well, only second to Trump) on the topic, he has been the most critical of the federal government’s current refugee vetting program, claiming that it largely overlooks the potential for allowing terrorists into the country. Cruz argues that allowing large numbers of refugees into the country would attract terrorists that could exploit, “any relaxation of immigration laws.” On refugee interests, Cruz’s actions speak much louder than his words. Earlier this year, he introduced legislation as a Texas Senator to entirely cut off federal funds to resettle refugees. Perhaps drawing the most criticism from Democrats was his “religious test,” which would make refugees prove their adherence to Christianity in order to enter the country. That policy even triggered comments from President Obama, who strongly condemned the idea.
Rubio seems to be facing considerable inner conflict when dealing with the refugee crisis. On one shoulder, he has the memory of his family’s history as Cuban refugees in Miami whispering into his ear, reminding him that he finds himself where he is today because of the United States’ willingness to offer them a home. On the other shoulder, the Republican party and its followers persuade him against allowing Syrians into the country, no matter whether they are Christian or Muslim. He has flip-flopped a lot on the issue, so it is unclear where exactly he stands. If he ultimately wants to grab the Republican nomination, he will most likely have to embrace a fundamentally conservative stance on the issue to fit within the larger Republican mold.
There are so many places to start with Ben Carson, but why not start with the most interesting. After having referred to some refugees as “rabid dogs,” Dr. Carson thought it would be timely and appropriate for him to travel to Jordan and meet with Syrian refugees in UN-sanctioned camps. Even though his campaign claimed the trip was solely for “fact-finding,” Carson garnered a significant amount of media coverage – perhaps a political move to solidify his legitimacy when speaking on foreign affairs? His only conclusion upon returning to the States: “The thing that I really learned in listening to the refugees themselves is their intense desire to return to their country and [be] repatriated,” Carson said in a CNN interview. In any case, Carson thinks the U.S. should not be “foolish” and ensure we do not accept refugees of any kind in the interest of our national security.
The Democratic Field
Echoing President Obama’s comments on refugees, Clinton fully supports the current system and agrees that the United States should be accepting Syrians in need. Referring to her tenure as Secretary of State, she has tried to affirm the country’s role as a global leader, and says that in order to maintain this spot the United States has to act dynamically in the face of this crisis and consider accepting refugees. Like most democrats, Clinton continues to push the notion that refugees are not the enemy, and nor is Islam. Clinton was especially vocal when her Republican rivals suggested that Syrians should be screened to ensure they only admit Christians, ripping at her opponents via Twitter.
Similarly to Clinton, Bernie Sanders vows that he would not turn his back on refugees. Challenging his Republican counterparts, Sanders accuses candidates like Trump of “fear-mongering” and employing damaging rhetoric. He also says in order to remain strong in the face of global terrorism, we must not turn away Syrian refugees, thus demonstrating to terrorists that the United States could succumb to intimidation. Typically, when asked about refugees, Sanders transitions his answer to a conversation about eradicating ISIS and other forms of radical Islamic terrorism.
Outside of the United States, other countries in the Western Hemisphere have taken the refugee crisis seriously and respond with direction action. Although they have no influence in the 2016 Presidential Election, some other countries outside of the Middle East and Europe are worth mentioning:
Under the leadership of the newly-elected Justin Trudeau, Syrians have been more than welcome in the Great White North. Canadians have a significant history of inviting refugees to stay in their country, but none got the wonderful treatment that Syrians received when they landed in Toronto. Coming from camps in Lebanon, some refugees arrived in a Canadian federal jet and were even greeted by Prime Minister Trudeau at the airport. Trudeau even distributed winter jackets and zipped up young Syrians in the clothing that will get them through the Canadian winter. Not only has the government extended a warm welcome to the displaced civilians, but the Canadian people have attempted to make the refugees’ transition to North America seamless. Communities have come together to greet them, ensuring they feel welcome in their new home. On Twitter, #WelcomeRefugees has been trending in Canada for weeks. In comparison with the United States circular debates on the issue, there was hardly any debate in Canada – Canadians opened their borders to refugees with no strings attached in a display of wholehearted, genuine humanitarianism. Hopefully some of that Canadian generosity will rub off on their neighbors to the south.
Brazil is not often a country that finds itself in the center of Middle Eastern policy, however the country recently opened its borders to Syrians. In October, Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian President, signed an agreement with the UNHCR to extend a visa program for Syrians that are applying for residency during the war. Although Syrians would most likely prefer to stay closer to home, this Brazilian act of openness is one that the rest of the world should follow. Brazil is not accepting refugees because they have a stake in the conflict, but rather for the sake of offering homes to those without – nothing but commendable.
While the focus of the refugee crisis has been on the Arab world and Europe, it should be viewed within the context of the larger international community. Following in the footsteps of countries like Canada and Brazil, countries should let in refugees not because they feel as though they are obliged, but because they can. While America’s international partners, both near and far, have been supporting refugees, it is our time to promote American values on an international scale. Instead of focusing on political rhetoric (which might be asking too much during an election cycle), we should be evaluating the role we can play domestically to invite Syrians into our communities. With refugee policy, just like everything else, actions tend to speak louder than words.
While they might not be able to vote, some Syrians are without a doubt tuned into the campaign. It might just determine their future.