A Response to Newt Gingrich’s Interview in Slate

The following is an excerpt of an interview with Newt Gingrich that was published in Slate. One can presume that this interview is fairly unfiltered, as Gingrich has no electoral prospects left at this stage in his career. He’s in a position to say what he thinks, consequences be damned, and, well…

INT: I heard Trump say at a rally that if you are a Christian living in Syria, Obama won’t let you into America. If you are a Muslim living in Syria, it’s the easiest thing in the world to come to America. And then Trump said, essentially, we all know why Obama acts this way, but I am not going to say it. You and I both know what he is playing to when he says that stuff, and it isn’t our finest impulses as Americans.

GIN: Well, what do you think he is playing to, other than the fact that it is true?

INT: It’s true that it’s the easiest thing in the world for a Muslim in Syria to come to the United States?

GIN: Well, it is certainly in Obama’s interest to allow you to come as a refugee. He’d let a lot more people come if he could.

INT: Well, people are suffering.

GIN: People are suffering everywhere. How about everybody in Darfur? Should they all come to Miami? The suffering thing is liberal tripe. It is nonsense.

INT: That doesn’t sound so much like the Reaganite conservatism you mentioned earlier.

GIN: What doesn’t?

INT: Saying suffering is liberal tripe. I thought he was a champion —

GIN: Suffering is an excuse and allows people to be guilt-tripped into doing bad policy. Look at who is going to Germany right now. These are population migrations, not refugee streams, and they are going to change Europe permanently to our disadvantage.

Gingrich’s specious and incoherent assertions in this interview are blood-curdling. Let’s look at four of them:

Fallacy #1: That “it’s the easiest thing in the world” for a Syrian Muslim to come to America.

Putting aside the hyperbole, it’s utterly false that it is “easy” for Syrian Muslim refugees to come to America. All refugees go through vetting by at least six different Federal and International agencies before they even land on U.S. shores. Most are not able to choose to which country they are sent. Fewer than 1% of Syrian refugees are even referred by the U.N. for resettlement, and only a small number of them to the United States. Far fewer are admitted to the U.S. By numbers alone, it is nearly impossible for a Syrian Muslim to obtain refugee status in the United States.

From Politifact:

Do the refugees get background checks?The refugees admissions program, created in 1980 and retooled after 9/11, does actually perform background checks on all refugees, to the extent possible.

Before refugees face U.S. screening, they must get a referral from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (or occasionally a U.S. embassy or another NGO). The UN refers about 1 percent of refugees for resettlement through its own vetting process, which takes four to 10 months. During that process, UN officials decide if people actually qualify as refugees, if they require resettlement, and which country would accept them.

Once the cases are passed along to the United States, the refugees undergo security clearances. Their names, biographical information and fingerprints are run through federal terrorism and criminal databases.

Meanwhile, the refugees are interviewed by Department of Homeland Security officials. If approved, they then undergo a medical screening, a match with sponsor agencies, “cultural orientation” classes and one final security clearance.

Syrian refugees in particular must clear one additional hurdle. Their documents are placed under extra scrutiny and cross-referenced with classified and unclassified information.

The process typically takes one to two years or longer and happens before a refugee ever gets onto American soil.

See also:

https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/refugees

https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/refugees/united-states-refugee-admissions-program-usrap-consultation-worldwide-processing-priorities

https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/refugees/refugee-eligibility-determination

Fallacy #2: Christian Refugees are not admitted to the United States.

Religious and ethnic identity are relevant to refugee status, but neither Christians nor Muslims have a preference. It is relevant whether your religious or ethnic identity is targeted for violence in your home country. Any Christian in Syria who is a victim of persecution will have just as legitimate a claim for refuge as a Muslim who is a victim of persecution.

Fallacy #3: That it’s in “Obama’s interest” to allow in as many refugees as possible:

Gingrich dodges the interviewer’s incredulous challenge to the falsehood about the refugee process by asserting without elucidation that it is in “Obama’s interest” to let Muslim refugees into America. What he means by “Obama’s interest” is opaque.

If you subscribe to the theory that humans always act in ways we perceive to be in our self-interest, certainly Obama believes admission of Syrian refugee’s is in his interest. The view that Obama would describe is that he believes that his interest is aligned with America’s interests and that America’s position in the world is strengthened by acts of kindness and generosity to suffering people. This is particularly true with regard to middle-Eastern Muslims, because demonstrations of compassion and humanity signal that we’re not the evil oppressor that some factions believe we are.

The long view is that by accepting and integrating middle-Eastern Mulsims into America, we defuse the pressures and narrative that give rise to terrorism. That, I think, would summarize how Obama would explain that accepting refugees is in his interest, as well as in the interest of all Americans.

But the implication of Gingrich’s comment is it’s in Obama’s interest and his interest somehow does not align with America’s interest — that he’s allowing some personal or sub-group’s interest to override the interest of America as a whole. Let’s tease that apart:

(a) Is it somehow in Obama’s personal, family or financial interest to allow Syrian Muslim refugees into America? I’ve heard no evidence or suggestion that this is the case.

(b) Is it in Obama’s personal political interest? Well, the Obama is at the end of his second term, and he cannot be reelected. If there is some political advantage for himself to be had, it is not apparent.

(c) Did Gingrich mean it’s in Democrats’ political interest? Perhaps he thinks Syrian refugees will provide an electoral advantage to Democrats.

To begin with, were talking about a tiny number of people — 10,000 is the usual number, but even if you go with the higher proposals of 60,000, that’s hardly a sea change in the national demographic. It might affect one, maybe two congressional districts if these people were concentrated into one or two places, which is unlikely.

Any substantial electoral advantage to be gained by demographic changes due to Syrian refugees is decades down the line. The tiny population, the even tinier number who will become citizens, and the lengthy process all make this a very long-term proposition. First, the refugees themselves are not eligible to become citizens until they’s first obtained a green card, and both processes take time and have waiting periods. The soonest it could happen, if a refugee began the process as soon as s/he is eligible, would be five years after arrival. Second, many if not most of the refugees will not apply for citizenship for years and years after obtaining a green card. Third, many are children who will be underage for voting until they turn eighteen AND become citizens. Fourth, the American-born children of refugees will take eighteen years to reach voting age.

Someday there might be a noticeable demographic benefit for Democrats, but that also tacitly admits that the Republican party will not be able to reach out and persuade these people to vote for the GOP.

Furthermore, accepting Syrian refugees is an immediate political risk for Obama and the Democrats; far more immediate than any demographic electoral advantage. Meanwhile, there’s the immediate political backlash, and the risk that if a refugee does commit a crime or an act of terrorism, it will poison an election in the immediate term. The safe political move for Democrats would be not to allow refugees. Muslims and Syrians are not such a major constituency that failure of Democrats to take the lead on this would have a significant impact on electoral success.

Thus, Obama either genuinely believes that the screening process will prevent refugees with terrorist inclinations from getting through, and therefore it’s safe to admit them, or he it putting very, very long-term electoral strategy above the immediate electoral disaster he would be inviting, if we are to accept that these people are a danger.

None of this makes any sense if you accept Gingrich’s presuppositions. Far more sensible is the realization that Obama is acting out of a mixture of compassion and a belief that American society can defuse the hatred of others by accepting them into our open arms.

(d) Ultimately, I suspect Gingrich was using coded language to refer to “Obama’s interest” as a person of color. If this is true, then the theory is that Obama wants to promote the “browning of America” out of a tribal loyalty to non-Whites. It’s a dubious assertion, at best.

Even if it’s true, it’s flatly racist to believe that more People of Color in America is somehow contrary to America’s interests. It views America as by and for White people, and believes it should stay that way. Gingrich’s view appears to be that it’s in Obama’s interest to have a diverse nation, and that it’s not in “our” interest — i.e. the interest of Newt Gingrich and his aging white, male constituency.

This interpretation is supported by Gingrich’s view that this is not a refugee crisis so much as a migration crisis, and that “they are going to change Europe permanently to our disadvantage.” Who is this “our” he believes will be disadvantaged? His view is that admitting non-White, non-Christian people to countries that have historically been majority white Christian will be “to our disadvantage.” This is xenophobia, pure and simple. Gingrich does not want the demographic nature of the United States to change. He believes that Obama has an agenda to change the demography of the United States, and it’s in “Obama’s interest” to admit Syrians to accomplish that goal. It’s a racist conspiracy theory, nothing less.

Fallacy #4: That if it was about compassion we’d be accepting refugees from Darfur.

Gingrich tries to argue that Obama’s refugee policy is not from compassion, but self-interest, by asking why we’re not taking in refugees from Darfur. First, I think that Obama and most Democrats would welcome refugees from Darfur in the same way we welcome refugees from Syria. If we are not, it’s because fewer are trying to come, we have less awareness of the crisis, and (this is the big one), the United States is not directly culpable for the crisis causing their suffering.

The civil war in Syria is a direct, immediate result of our illegal military adventurism in Iraq. You can point your fingers at Bush or Obama as much as you want, but the bottom line is that it was the representatives of the American public that removed the Hussein regime and left a void that has collapsed into chaos. We have a specific, unique responsibility to the people whose lives we have upended, whose society we have destroyed, whose families have been killed and tortured. Their lives are our responsibility because we created the problem.

I’m all for accepting refugees from Darfur. I believe America is a strong enough society to absorb them and their needs. But Darfur is not our unique burden to bear. We did not create the divisions in the Sudan, or destabilize the region. If indeed our resources to accept refugees are limited (and I don’t think we’re anywhere near reaching our capacity), we have an obligation to the Syrians that we do not have to the South Sudanese.

In the 1970’s we accepted Hmong refugees from North Vietnam because they fought on our side in the war. We recognized our special responsibility to them, and brought them here en mass to escape persecution. We have similar moral obligations to the people living and fleeing the civil war in Syria. To suggest otherwise is blind.