What Is Our Obligation? The Refugee Crisis and the US Elections


This election cycle has been a whirlwind of high emotions and increased division in our country. As the rest of the world watches our presidential election in astonishment, we have admittedly been less concerned with the issues facing the rest of the international community, in particular, the refugee crisis. Starting in the Middle East, this crisis has permeated through a large portion of Europe, but it has fallen on the back burner in U.S. policy.  With the continued violence in Syria, North Africa, and other parts of the Middle East, the migration of refugees and asylum seekers has increased and is already reaching the boiling point. Without the resources and the public will to solve this issue quickly, this will be a crisis that will shape the rest of this decade. Although we are a country unified by the principles of liberty and freedom, there is a schism growing among the American population perpetuated by the recent terror attacks and platforms of our recent presidential candidates. Before the Paris terror attack last November, a CNN poll found that 83% of Americans supported the U.S. providing direct aid to refugees. After the attack, 53% of Americans were in favor of closing off refugee settlement completely in the United States. This interesting polarization, developing from a sense of fear about national security and xenophobia, begs the question: Do we have an obligation to this crisis? And if so, what obligation do we have as a country to bring refugees into our country?

A Hand in the Crisis

For some Americans, the past plays an important role in determining how we deal with global crises. The belief that we are citizens of a country founded and built by immigrants feeds another belief that we should accept those seeking freedom from persecution. For others, the fear of homegrown terrorism outweighs the humanitarian interests. They favor protecting our country by cutting off those who could bring it harm from the inside. According to a November 2015 study by Gallup, this type of response is not new. In the past, during global humanitarian crises, Americans have generally opposed accepting refugees into the country for fear of bringing in potential terrorists or criminals. However, there is new evidence that shows this kind of fear is highly over-exaggerated and draws away from the real problem at hand.

Alexia Fernández Campbell of The Atlantic writes in her article “America’s Real Refugee Problem” that “Refugees face an exhaustive screening process by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that can take years.” The argument that groups like ISIS have planted members in refugee groups to attack other countries is debunked by research that shows recruitment for ISIS focuses on bringing fighters to Syria, not sending them away. Research coming out of the Brookings Institute argues that “The refugees themselves, fleeing war and extremism, are not strong supporters of the most violent groups: if they were, they would have stayed in Iraq or Syria.”

Many in the field agree that the best way to protect Americans from homegrown terror attacks is to integrate refugees into the economy and the community. Campbell states that the hardest part of refugee resettlement is dealing with a system that provides no support. She claims, based on her interviews at a refugee community in Minneapolis, that our concern should not be with “extremist” refugees entering the country, but with them struggling in poverty from the isolation they face in American society, where they are largely on their own after entering the country. A well-funded, and properly implemented integration system will be integral for the United States dealing with the refugee crisis. However, this sort of integration process has not been at the forefront of the discussion of refugee policy in this election. On the debate stage, the issue is at a standstill between whether to accept or deny acceptance of refugees into the country.

The Election and the Crisis

Both Donald Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton have offered policy proposals to deal with the refugee crisis, but it is very clear that each comes from a very different perspective on the role of the United States in this global issue. The crisis speaks to who we are as a country, who we want to be in the future, and what our role in international crises will be from this point forward. Trump’s platform on this issue relies heavily on the wave of fear that has come with the increase of terrorist attacks worldwide. According to the BBC, Donald Trump “has called for the US to suspend resettling refugees until ‘extreme vetting’ procedures can be implemented, including ideological tests to screen out extremists.” In contrast, Hillary Clinton “has pledged to welcome Syrian refugees and allow refugees and asylum seekers ‘a fair chance to tell their stories.'” She proposed to accept 65,000 Syrian refugees to help alleviate the crisis created by the Syrian war.” However, neither candidate has discussed the bigger picture: developing our national integration policy. In this last year alone, the Pew Research Center states that the United States accepted 85,000 refugees, and that number is still growing. What will be important as we continue to address the refugee crisis is that we need to provide adequate programs and sources of assistance to help them rise out of poverty, in order to truly repair this humanitarian crisis.

In light of Donald Trump’s recent victory and his stance on the refugee crisis, the future of the United State’s humanitarian efforts is uncertain. However, as a world leader and a current participant in this crisis, it is our obligation as a country to help those who settle here participate in the economy and create a better life than the one they escaped from. It doesn’t just pertain to our humanitarian interests; it will also help to keep our country safer from the threat of terror.

Image source: Haaretz, AP


  • Rebecca DeSantis

    Rebecca is a student in American University’s Master’s of Public Administration program, concentrating in International Management. She hopes to use this degree to pursue her interest in education accessibility and access here and abroad, ideally working for an international organization. Her academic interests include higher education access, crisis management, and organization structure and management. 

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