Simmering anti-refugee sentiment in the U.S. has blown up into full-fledged xenophobic hysteria since Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris.
The assaults — conducted largely, it is believed, by French and Belgian nationals — turned into fodder for Republicans to amp up their attacks on the Obama administration’s previously announced plans to accept more Syrian refugees next year.
Even before details of the attackers’ backgrounds had emerged, GOP candidates were screaming that refugees from regions torn by the Islamic State be banned from the United States. Cable news pundits fueled the fire, speculating even before assault was over that the flow of migrants through Europe were connected to attack. By Monday, the backlash to the U.S. long tradition of accepting refugees was in full force and Congress was flirting with the idea of shutting down the government over Obama’s refugee plans.
There is much still to be learned about who conducted Friday’s attacks and how they did it. So far, the attackers who have been identified are nationals of European Union countries, though the names of a few attackers remain unknown. But here is a look at how the very uncertain and contradictory information emerging from the Paris attacks turned into a firestorm over Syrian refugees in America.
The important thing to understand is that Paris’ attacks didn’t occur in a vacuum.
Obama’s refugee program had already become a flashpoint of the GOP primary and a target for conservative lawmakers well before three teams of attackers dispersed across Paris Friday evening to begin their assault. The question of whether the U.S. should offer refuge to those fleeing Middle East violence had come up in the GOP presidential debates and on the campaign trail. Prior to the attacks, the GOP presidential candidates were split, but opposing the admission of Syrian refugees suddenly became a new GOP litmus test.
While events unfolded Friday evening in Paris, cable news pundits were quick to make the connection between the ongoing refugee debate and assaults playing out on Paris’ streets. To their credit, some analysts pointed out that France had accepted a relatively low number of refugees and too little was known to make any assumptions. But that didn’t stop Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs from putting “Syrian refugees” in scare quotes and suggesting French President Francis Hollande had closed the country’s borders too late.
Friday evening, Cruz released a statement that said, “We need to immediately declare a halt to any plans to bring refugees that may have been infiltrated by ISIS to the United States.
The attack was also playing out as a summit of Republican 2016 candidates was just kicking off in Florida. The confab gave GOPers an easy platform to one-up each other in linking the attacks to Obama’s refugee push before the details were fully known.
Carson said Friday evening at the summit he would not have allowed refugees to settle in the U.S. in the first place: “If I were one of the leaders of the global jihadist movement, and I didn’t infiltrate that group of people with my people, that would be almost malpractice.
Saturday a full slate of White House contenders scheduled to speak at the summit had their chance to ring the refugee alarm bells.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) said allowing refugees to resettle here would “accomplish what ISIS wants to accomplish by accepting them.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), echoing Carson, said he “wouldn’t invite the refugees in the first place” and Carly Fiorina also bashed Obama’s program.
Donald Trump, speaking at a Texas rally Saturday, said, “to take in 250,000 — some of whom are going to have problems, big problems — is just insane.” (Where the 250,000 number comes from is unclear.)
Former Arkansas Mike Huckabee (R-AK) told CNN it was “craziest thing” to “take people who live in a desert who don’t speak our language, who don’t understand our culture, who don’t share a same worldview, and bring them to Minnesota during the winter.”
Meanwhile, a key detail from the attacks feeding the hysteria — that a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the attackers — was making the rounds, having first been reported by France 2 and other French media via a police source. By early Saturday, Greek officials had told news outlets including Reuters that the passport had been processed in early October on the Greek island Leros, where migrants are known to pass through.
However, it is still unclear whether the terrorist entered with Syrian refugees. Confusion around the passport mounted as a man carrying a passport with the same number was arrested at a Serbian refugee camp. Serbian officials told The Guardian they believed both passports were fakes, while a French source told the Agence France-Presse that the original passport may have actually belonged to soldier loyal to the Assad regime.
But the uncertainty over the passport didn’t stop the alarm over the Syrian refugees from extending beyond the campaign trail. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — at the time still a presidential candidate — sent Obama a letter Saturday asking for more details about refugees settling in his state. The governors of Michigan and Alabama took it one step farther, declaring that Syrian refugees would not be permitted in their states. By Monday evening, more than two dozen governors had come out against refugees coming into the their states.
When lawmakers returned to the U.S. Capitol Monday afternoon the fears about the refugees was already the top political story.
Without solid proof that the attackers were of Syrian descent or even exploiting refugee pathways, outlets like Fox News shifted their focus to pre-Paris testimony by security officials suggesting a possibility of terrorists infiltrating migrant networks.