All 22 Presidential Candidates Were Asked to Define U.S. Refugee Policy - Few Had Clear Answers

It was an image that shocked the conscience of the world: the lifeless body of a Syrian toddler, washed ashore on a Turkish beach.
The drowning of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi has become emblematic of the refugee crisis and the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people who have loaded into boats just this year to risk the dangerous journey to Europe, seeking primarily to escape conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.

As Europe struggles to host the millions of refugees who have fled war-torn Syriain particular, the image of Kurdi has posed a fundamental question to America: should the US open its borders to more?

Last week, the Guardian contacted the campaigns of every candidate for the White House – 17 Republicans and five Democrats – to ask two questions. Should the US be accepting more refugees? And, as president, how would each candidate define US policy toward those seeking asylum from war-torn and impoverished countries?

But even as presidential candidates offer foreign policy pitches through a lens of moral leadership, just one of 22 contenders – former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley – said unequivocally that the US should take in more refugees and put forward a specific number. In a statement issued on Thursday, the Democrat called on the government to accept 65,000 refugees from Syria over the next year.

“If Germany – a country with one-fourth our population – can accept 800,000 refugees this year, certainly we – the nation of immigrants and refugees – can do more,” O’Malley said in a statement.

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a Republican, suggested on Sunday that no additional refugees should be taken in until the US contends with the threat posed by the Islamic State. 

“What we should be doing is dealing with Isis. Until we start dealing directly with Isis, we’re avoiding the core of the problem,” Walker said in response to a question by the Guardian during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “The problem is that Isis is running amok in these parts of the world. The United States needs to step up and deal with it.”

“I think we do have a responsibility in terms of taking some more folks in, making sure they assimilate, and at the same time helping people to actually be safe as they move,” Kasich said in an appearance on ABC. “That’s logistical support.”

Several campaigns, including those of top contenders such as Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and her closest challenger, Bernie Sanders, and Republicans Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the specific question of whether the US should accept more refugees.

A spokeswoman for Clinton pointed to a Friday interview in which Clinton addressed the crisis more broadly, calling it “heartbreaking” while urging more action across the globe to alleviate the flow of refugees into Europe.

“I think that the larger Middle East, I think Asia – I think everybody should step up and say we have to help these people,” the former secretary of state told MSNBC. “And I would hope that under the aegis of the United Nations, led by the Security Council, and certainly by the United States, which has been such a generous nation in the past ... we would begin to try to find ways to help people get to safety in other lands. However that does not solve the problem, and the problem is one that, the entire world now sees, doesn’t just affect the Syrian people – it affects all of us.”

Republicans have largely placed the blame on the Obama administration, citing the president’s reluctance to take more definitive action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“We have allowed the Syrian situation to spiral out of control,” Rubio, a senator from Florida, said in an interview with Fox News on Thursday, while adding that he had urged stronger action against Assad from the beginning.

“This administration did nothing – they moved very slowly to arm and equip [moderate rebels], and radical groups like Isis and al-Nusra took hold, and now you have this crisis threatening Europe,” he said.

“It’s not just solely the United States’ responsibility, but it most certainly is in our national security interest that parts of Europe are now being destabilized because of this migratory crisis.”

A spokesman for Rubio said he had nothing to add when reached for the senator’s position on allowing more refugees into the US. 

Lousiana governor Bobby Jindal also pinned the issue on what he called a “leading from behind” strategy on Obama’s part. In a statement to the Guardian, the Republican also expressly ruled out taking in more refugees, which he said would be a “ridiculous” approach to resolving the crisis.

“Let’s call this Syrian disaster exactly what it is – the result of President Obama’s leading from behind strategy – he drew the red line and then backed down,” Jindal said.

“And no, the answer is not for America to increase the number of refugees we take in. We are already the most compassionate and generous country in the world and it is not even close.”

“No other country provides anywhere near the amount of assistance for hurting people around the world as we do. But the idea that we can fix all these problems by just accepting the world’s refugees is ridiculous. We simply have to get a new commander in chief, fast.”

The refugee crisis is as politically charged as issues come during a presidential election in which immigration and national security have emerged as flashpoints – and in which Donald Trump has uncovered the toxicity among Republicans of how to deal with the roughly 11m undocumented immigrants living in the US. 

But even Trump, the GOP frontrunner who has positioned himself as the face of the conservative movement against illegal immigration, said the US should “possibly” accept more refugees.

“The answer is possibly yes, possibly yes,” Trump told MSNBC last week. “So horrible on a humanitarian basis when you see that. It’s incredible what’s going on.” 

He added, nonetheless, that the US has no shortage of its own problems – particularly at the border. “It is a huge problem and we should help as much as possible, but we do have to fix our own country,” Trump said.

Other Republicans have raised national security concerns over opening up the US to more refugees. On Sunday, Carly Fiorina said the US cannot relax its criteria for letting refugees in and warned against those who might be affiliated with terrorist activity.

“The United States, I believe, has done its fair share in terms of humanitarian aid,” the former Hewlett Packard CEO said on CBS’ Face the Nation.

“We are having to be very careful about who we let enter this country from these war-torn regions to ensure that terrorists are not coming here.”

The Kentucky senator Rand Paul sounded similar alarms, citing the US government’s acceptance of refugees from Iraq and Somalia – some of whom he said now wished to harm the country.

“We are a welcoming nation, and we have accepted a lot of refugees, and I think we will continue to do so. But we also can’t accept the whole world, so I think there are some limits,” Paul told CNN.

The US has accepted only 1,500 Syrian refugees so far, and the White House said last week it did not anticipate any changes to its current policy.

Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that “a lot more” could be done to protect the stream of refugees, but said American efforts would remain focused on helping existing refugee camps in other nations.

“I’m not talking about taking [in refugees] on a permanent basis,” Kerry told the Huffington Post. “We have huge refugee camps in Jordan, in Lebanon. They’re spread more in the population.

“In Turkey, we have refugee camps. It may be that we have to set up some sort of refugee camp structure for the time being in order to deal with it.”

On Sunday the former British foreign secretary David Miliband, who is now based in New York as head of the International Rescue Committee, called on the US to bring out “the kind of leadership America has shown on these kind of issues” in the past.

“The United States has always been a leader in refugee resettlement but 1,500 people over four years is such a miniscule contribution to tackling the human side of this problem,” Miliband said on ABC.

The Obama administration has repeatedly pointed out that the US has provided more humanitarian assistance to Syria amid the conflict, at roughly $4bn, than any other country. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters last week that there “is certainly capacity in Europe” to deal with the flood of refugees.

Earnest rejected Republican suggestions that a more “muscular” approach to the Syrian civil war would have prevented the crisis.

“There’s not really much evidence to substantiate that claim,” he said. “You certainly could make the case that that might have led to a different outcome – it might have hastened the departure of President Assad, but it also would have subjected the United States to a whole host of more significant risks, including more significant outlays of funds to fund essentially a war in Syria.”

Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor who is polling below 1% in the Democratic race, said the US “unfortunately bears a great deal of responsibility for the refugee crisis because of our invasion of Iraq and the spread of chaos in the region as a result”.

He stopped short, however, of saying more refugees should be taken in, in his statement to the Guardian. Only two of the 22 candidates vying to hold the most powerful position in world policy – O’Malley and Kasich – appeared ready to go that far.

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