Amid Terror, Refugee Advocates Seek Balance


Just days after 15 major American Jewish organizations and 200 synagogues signed statements affirming their support for the resettlement of refugees fleeing strife-ridden countries, terrorist attacks in the New York area and Minnesota last weekend by men associated with overseas Islamic radicals is giving many some pause.

“We don’t want to underreact and don’t want to overreact,” said Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz of Port Washington, L.I. “To underreact is to pretend this is not a particular problem within the Muslim communities in the West. To overreact is to place restrictions on wholesale immigration of refugees just because some come from a particular country.”

The rabbi, whose congregation, The Community Synagogue of Port Washington, joined the refugees’ Welcome Campaign organized by HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), added: “Often those coming from the most difficult countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia are escaping areas we fear — and they can become our allies in the fight against radical Islam.”

A record 65 million people worldwide are displaced because of conflict, persecution or to seek a better life. President Barack Obama in his final presidential speech to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday called on wealthier nations to do more to help resettle them. He then held a special refugee summit with 30 nations on the sidelines of the G.A., which on Monday approved a declaration designed to provide a more coordinated and humane response to the refugee crisis.

But the arrest Monday of Ahmad Khan Rahami, a 28-year-old naturalized citizen from Afghanistan, as the man suspected of placing bombs on the streets of New York and New Jersey overshadowed Monday’s U.N. session. And his arrest, along with a stabbing rampage in a Minnesota mall by a 22-year-old from Africa described as a “soldier” for the Islamic State, has become political fodder in the presidential campaign.

Within minutes of a bomb exploding in the Chelsea section of Manhattan Saturday night that injured 29, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump announced to those at a rally that a “bomb” had exploded in New York. His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, later chastised him for identifying it as a bomb before authorities determined the cause of the explosion. And she called Trump a “recruiting sergeant for the terrorists.”

In reply, Trump derided Clinton’s handling of immigration and called for the U.S. to use the same kind of profiling used by Israel in screening its visitors, something he has proposed in the past.

“They’ve done an unbelievable job, as good as you can do,” he told Fox News.
The objective of such profiling, Trump once explained to CBS News, is to single out Muslims. “Well, I think profiling is something that we’re going to have to start thinking about as a country,” he said, describing a security check he witnessed in which he said it would have made more sense to scrutinize those who “looked like” a perpetrator.

“Other countries do it, you look at Israel and you look at others, they do it and they do it successfully,” Trump said.

But Steve Pomerantz, a counterterrorism expert, told JTA that such profiling is not designed to single out everyone from a particular ethnic religious group but rather to look for behavioral patterns.

“If I was looking at gathering intelligence on the threat of terrorism, would I be looking at that community more than others? You bet,” Pomerantz said, referring to Muslims. “But treating an individual based solely on their ethnicity is another issue altogether.”

And just as Rabbi Zeplowitz observed, finding would-be terrorists in a particular community is much easier with the cooperation of that community and its religious leaders. Trump’s proposal to target an entire community only alienates its members, according to law enforcement officials here.

During the campaign, Trump has repeatedly called for a ban on accepting Syrian refugees into this country. Initially, he said the U.S. should keep out all foreign Muslim immigrants “until we know what the hell is going on.” Later, he modified that to say there should be “extreme” vetting and an ideological test for those seeking refugee status from countries and regions from which extremists have emerged.

He has also belittled Clinton for her proposal to accept about 65,000 Syrian refugees, in addition to the tens of thousands of refugees from other countries. In the fiscal year ending this month, the Obama administration admitted 10,000 Syrian refugees, plus another 75,000 from other parts of the world. For the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, Obama has increased to 110,000 the number of refugees to be admitted from throughout the world.

Clinton has also said she would continue the current vetting process that can take months to complete.

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, said all refugees admitted and settled in the United States are “vetted and cleared,” although he conceded that “no process is foolproof.”
Asked about the three Syrian migrants arrested last week in Germany on suspicion of being a sleeper terrorist cell, Hetfield told a conference call with journalists that refugees are posing a “real problem” in Europe.

“The migrant refugees are coming in spontaneously and vetting is taking place after they arrive,” he said. “Some 99.9 percent are either legitimate refugees or migrants seeking a better life, and Europe has to do better. The U.S. is in a better situation because the refugees coming here were [already] vetted and cleared. The pipeline [of refugees seeking admission] is huge, but it has been slowed down by the vetting process.”

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president of community engagement at HIAS, pointed out that the United States “is a country for refugees. They are fleeing from countries not friendly to us. The darkest moments in American history were when we shut our doors [to refugees]. That happened in 1921 and 1939 and millions died. We have to look at that history. Letting in 400,000 Soviet Jews certainly posed security risks, but it is not something we regret. The U.S. government vets refugees upside down and sideways. It is a cumbersome vetting procedure … Nothing is airtight, but all of us feel secure that it will not be a gateway to terrorists.”

Although the vetting process used to be 18 to 24 months, the Obama administration speeded it up to only three months to make sure that it fulfilled its quota of 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of this month. The quota was reached a full month early, but Hetfield said the quickened processing did not shortchange the vetting process.

“The slower process wasn’t necessarily a better process,” he said. “They could do all they wanted to do within a shorter period of time. There are so many intelligence agencies looking at each file and there are always one or two agencies that hold things up because files may be stuck on someone’s desk.”

Meanwhile, the website Media Matters pointed out that the recent comments of one of Trump’s sons, Donald Trump Jr., has apparently made him the darling of members of the white nationalist movement. It cited a “gas chamber” reference he made, his comparison of poisoned Skittles to Syrian refugees and his retweet of an anti-Semitic author.

It noted that The Washington Post found that “a lot of Donald Trump Jr.’s trail missteps seem to involve white nationalists and Nazis,” and that a neo-Nazi website said the young Trump had “hit a nerve … [with the] Jew media.”