Syria’s devastating civil war has fractured the country forcing millions to flee and seek refuge all around the world. The influx of Syrian refugee resettlement in both Europe and the United States has become a hot button issue, forcing a shift in attitudes on the topic. The purpose of this study is to demonstrate that in particular, the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in Texas is higher compared to the attitudes of the United States as a whole. I assert that in particular, this is caused by a corollary rise in general anti-Islam attitudes driven by fearmongering and the spread of false rumors related to the danger level presented by incoming refugees.
A wide ranging series of events following the 9/11 attacks have catapulted the Middle East and surrounding areas into a state of upheaval and chaos that have left millions of affected people seeking refuge in safer countries including the United States.
As the public perceives social tension and strain caused by the arrival of refugees in Europe to have caused social destabilization and unrest, segments of the American population have expressed fear and uncertainty as to whether this country will be negatively impacted by refugees entering the United States. Rumors of dramatic instances of crime perpetrated by refugees from predominantly Muslim nations, specifically Syria, in Europe may be behind an uptick of fear among Americans and Texans alike when it comes to grappling with the uncertainty of newcomers heading towards our shores.
“Once you have a plausible story then the criteria for information you need in order to believe [a new story] is much lower, because you would say ‘this is like what happened elsewhere.”
Gary Fine, Professor of Sociology, Northwestern University
Despite the significance of the immigrant experience within the greater American story, public opinion on whether immigration should be increased or curtailed has shifted in a volatile fashion through the past several decades.
Following a call by then presidential candidate Donald J. Trump to restrict the inflow of Muslims into the US, politicians have capitalized on an opportunity to appeal to a genuine sentiment rooted in fear and uncertainty expressed by their constituents.
In our state, Governor Abbott declared that the State of Texas would no longer participate in federal programs that facilitate the resettlement of refugees in the state leaving the national government no choice but to look to nonprofit organization to take the state government’s place in the administration of such programs.
Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity,” — “As such, opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”
Governor Greg Abbott
Though the recent actions by the federal and state governments have cultivated a strong show of support by many in our country, these moves are concurrently seen by others as divisive and done more so in the interest of exploiting possible xenophobia and confusion of those grappling to understand the changing nature of the world.
Texas and Refugees — Current Trends
With over 51% of Texans polled disapproving of Syrian refugees arriving in the state and that figure remaining consistent over the two years surveyed, the difference in general attitudes Texans express towards immigration as a whole can be used to detail that the fear is specifically geared towards those in Syria, a predominantly Muslim country often associated with Islamist terror attacks and other conflicts in the region.
Texas has exhibited remarkable moderation when it comes to undocumented migration and the presence of undocumented residents in the state. This is puzzling, given the fact that Texas’ politics is dominated by the Republican Party, which is closely associated with anti-immigration policies in other states. The situation is compounded by the fact that Texas constitutes half of the U.S.-Mexico border and it is the transit zone for many of the undocumented residents in the United States as well as home to the second-largest number of undocumented residents. Finally, the state’s moderate stance is perplexing given the relative violence that the Mexican side of the border has experienced in the last six years and the constant threat of a spillover — however real or imagined.
TONY PAYAN, PH.D. Fellow in Immigration and Border Studies RICE UNIVERSITY’S BAKER INSTITUTE
To explain the relatively moderate attitude towards immigration as a whole versus the disproportionately high negative sentiments towards Syrian refugees and other newcomers from predominantly Muslim nations, a specific fear of Islam and Muslims could be the answer.
Researches at Texas A&M University conducted a study on media bias and the effect on Islamophobia in Texas and asserted in part the following:
The researchers found a correlation between people who rely on media depictions of Muslims and having negative attitudes, versus those with direct interactions who were less likely to view Muslims negatively.
“Our findings show that individuals who rely on the media for information on Muslims have greater negative emotions toward Muslims and increased perceptions of Muslims as aggressive, which in turn leads to support for civil restrictions against Muslims and military actions against Muslim countries,” says Ramasubramanian, who studies media psychology and cultural diversity, especially the effects of media stereotypes on users’ attitudes, emotions, and policy support towards marginalized groups.
Srividya “Srivi” Ramasubramanian of Texas A&M also delivered the following assertion:
Some participants with negative attitudes toward Muslims expressed what Ramasubramanian describes as domestic and foreign policies harmful to Muslims. “Domestic policies included statements such as support for secretly monitoring Muslims without their consent or awareness, or restricting the ability of Muslim-Americans to vote. Foreign policy included several statements such as support for the use of military action and drones against Muslim countries.”
The fact that Muslims are not represented in every community in Texas could be one explanation for the lack of contact and thus the lack of understanding of the religion. That combined with rumors spread on social media and exploitation of the issue by politicians such as Senator Ted Cruz, President Donald Trump, and Governor Greg Abbott lay the groundwork for understanding why it is such a disproportionately anti Muslim sentiment exists. The fact that Syrian Refugees are singled out as a particular threat may have more to do with the predominance they exhibit within social media rumors and retelling of supposed happenings involving individuals involved in violent crime such as assault and rape in Europe but Germany in particular.
Conclusively, it is apparent that Texas state politicians may express strong rhetoric when it comes to the dangers of refugees but as exhibited by the reference to Tony Payan’s work examining the actual policy implications of recent legislative sessions in Texas, it can be concluded that politicians and interest groups do not actually have an interest in putting forward policy actions and legislation with real teeth or substantive enforcement actions.
Texas has proven itself to be a moderate state in terms of immigration as a whole, and it continues to welcome thousands of refugees each year. But through a combination of lack of understanding, palpable fear in the unknown, and political ambition of rhetoric driven politicians, Syrian refugees have not been able to enjoy the hospitality and welcome this state has long been known for providing to newcomers from all over the world.