Wendy Pearlman is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, where she also holds the Martin and Patricia Koldyke Outstanding Teaching Professorship. She has spent more than 20 years studying and living in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Her new book is We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: More than 6 million people have fled Syria since the conflict began there seven years ago. Most of them have gone to nearby countries in the Middle East. In 2016, Obama’s last year, the United States admitted around 15,000 Syrian refugees. This year, with Trump as president, in the first three months we’ve admitted 11. Trump says that’s because we need “to keep Islamic radical terrorists out of the United States of America. We don’t want them here. We want to ensure we aren’t admitting into our country the very threats that our men and women are fighting overseas.” What does it take for a Syrian to get refugee status in the United States?
Wendy Pearlman: The “extreme vetting” that Trump called for on the campaign trail has already been in place for years. Less than 1 percent of refugees around the world are resettled to a third country like the United States. The process begins with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which screens refugees and identifies a very small number of the most vulnerable cases to be considered for resettlement. They then pass those cases on to the US government, where some eight different government agencies participate in layers of interviews, medical screenings, background checks, and matching of biometric data with security databases. As I elaborated in a piece I wrote shortly after Trump’s first travel ban, the process takes about two years.
JW: Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, recently said that the Syrians she has met in refugee camps do not want to come to the United States: “Not one of the many that I talked to ever said, ‘We want to go to America,’” she says. “They want to stay as close to Syria as they can.” You’ve talked to hundreds of Syrian refugees; did any of them tell you they’d like to come to America?
WP: Ambassador Haley’s statement is a misrepresentation of a very complex reality. Many Syrian refugees want to return home, provided that they can live safe and dignified lives there. They fled when that became impossible. And they were the lucky ones: The countries neighboring Syria have increasingly closed their borders, so many more Syrians would leave if they could, but cannot.