Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Welcoming the Wretched Refuse

The Obama administration recently announced that it would meet its goal of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the fiscal year. That statement highlights the fact that our national policy toward refugees provides one of the starkest differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Clinton proposes to increase the annual intake of Syrians to 65,000. "We're facing the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II, and I think the United States has to do more," she said on CBS. "I want the United States to lead the world."

Trump wants to end all immigration from Syria. "We have no idea who they are, where they came from," he said in Phoenix. "There's no documentation. There's no paperwork. It's going to end badly, folks. It's going to end very, very badly."

Clinton's position represents the best of American values, a reaffirmation of our tradition of offering a safe haven for the pursued and the persecuted, for the "wretched refuse of your teeming shore," as the plaque on the Statue of Liberty puts it.

Trump's tirade represents the worst side of America, a cynical appeal to the fear and xenophobia that periodically stain our national character. Moreover, he defends his position with blatant lies, starting with the allegation that these refugees threaten our national security.

Look at who these refugees really are. About two-thirds of those applying for refugee status from Syria are either women or children under 12, according to the administration. "Single men of combat age" represent 2 percent of the total.

A study released this week by UNICEF reinforces the conclusion that children are the principle victims of conflict. The number of youthful refugees has doubled in 10 years, and nearly 1 out of every 200 children in the world is an exile.

Trump is flat-out wrong. We know who the refugees are and where they come from. Every Syrian who applies for asylum is subject to extensive interviews, background checks and biometric scrutiny -- an exhaustive process that can last up to two years.

As Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters recently: "We believe ... the people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism. They are parents. They are children. They are orphans. It is very important that we do not close our hearts to the victims of such violence."

Trump's poisonous position connects to an equally misguided idea: that refugees drain the economy and soak up social services. Sure, there are short-term costs, although they are borne mainly by private charity, but history shows conclusively that most refugees quickly become hard-working, tax-paying contributors to American life.

"We are very comfortable that we are bringing people in who will be a great plus to our country," says Kerry.

Moreover, accepting Syrians helps fight terrorism by telling the Muslim world we are not at war with their religion, only a violent, perverted version of it.

The impact of refugees on our national security and economic health are important questions, but there's another issue at stake here: our moral duty and tradition as a nation. The words on the Statute of Liberty actually mean something. Or they should.

The world is swamped by "homeless, tempest-tost" families who have been permanently displaced. Even a quota of 65,000 Syrians -- let alone 10,000 -- falls well below the global need, and the response of other countries.

More than a million Syrian refugees are already in Europe. Far more have sought sanctuary in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. "Canada," writes The Washington Post, "with a population barely a tenth the size of the United States, has resettled three times more Syrian refugees since last fall."

Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley puts it well, notes the Post. The United States has 320 million people, so taking in 65,000 Syrians "would be statistically akin to adding 6 1/2 people to a baseball stadium holding 32,000."

Ammar Kawkab and his family fled their home in northern Syria for Lebanon and eventually settled in San Diego. According to AFP, he was "fighting back tears" as he showed a reporter the American flag hanging on a wall in their modest apartment.

"The day I set foot here, I felt as much American as Obama," he said. "As soon as I saw the flag, I felt safe."

Refugees like Kawkab are not terrorists; they are the prime victims of terrorism. America should take in more of them, not fewer. Our flag should stand for safety and tolerance, not fear and rejection.

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