Painting asylum-seekers as potential threats is an old, cynical game

Fears of malefactors entering the U.S. among legitimate asylum-seekers are overblown.

A migrant gestures to Texas National Guard members standing behind razor wire on the bank of the Rio Grande, seen from Matamoros, Mexico, May 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

(RNS) — Earlier this year, a group of migrants from Uzbekistan arrived at the United States’ southern border and requested asylum. Their information was run through the intelligence community’s databases and raised no red flags, so they were released into the U.S. and given dates for court appearances. 

Only later did the FBI discover that the migrants’ travel to Mexico had been facilitated by a human smuggling network that included an individual who had expressed support for the Islamic State group, known as ISIS.

No terrorist plot was identified, but the discovery nevertheless set off alarm bells in the White House. A flurry of urgent meetings took place among top national security and administration officials. Some of the Uzbeks have been located and questioned; others are still being tracked down.

The fact that the system worked, if belatedly, to alert authorities to potential threats isn’t likely to assuage fears that the recent surge of migrants poses a risk to American citizens. Some politicians have long asserted that current immigration policy is allowing terrorists and violent criminals into our country.

These assertions come in the face of a wealth of evidence indicating otherwise. A 2020 study by the CATO Institute that looked at immigration into Texas, the only state that records the immigration status of those entering the criminal justice system, showed that in 2018, the illegal immigrant criminal conviction rate was 782 per 100,000. Among legal immigrants, the rate declined to 535 convictions per 100,000 legal immigrants. Native-born Americans, meanwhile, were convicted at a rate of 1,422 per 100,000.

The fear of criminals, terrorists or spies slipping in among people who wish to immigrate is certainly a concern worth following up on. But overreacting to it can harm innocent people, especially if we vet migrants as if the above numbers were reversed.

In the summer of 1942, a ship arrived in New York from Sweden carrying hundreds of European Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Among the passengers was one Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr, a 28-year-old man from Germany.

American authorities suspected him of being not a refugee but a spy for Germany. After being interviewed relentlessly by no less than five separate government agencies, he was accused of espionage, put on trial and, despite his claim that he had intended all along to switch sides, found guilty.

The system worked then too, but there was considerable peripheral damage.

Bahr’s case prompted fears that a “fifth column” of spies and saboteurs was infiltrating America. The State Department and the FBI argued that admitting refugees en masse risked admitting people who wanted to harm the United States and the war effort.

Yet today, historians believe that Bahr’s case was practically unique, and the concern about refugee spies was blown far out of proportion.

The suspicions nonetheless came to inform American immigration policy. Special scrutiny was brought to bear on anyone with relatives in Nazi territories — even those whose relatives were in concentration camps. President Franklin D. Roosevelt repeated claims — unsupported by evidence — that some Jewish refugees had been coerced to spy for the Nazis. 

The current refugee crisis is by no means parallel to the situation during World War II, to be sure. But we can draw lessons from the unreasonable fears Americans harbored about European immigrants 80 years ago — the same unreasonable fears that are being exploited by some officials in positions of power today. 

When President Harry S. Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, allowing refugees from the dislocations of World War II to start immigrating beyond pre-existing quotas, our country was not overrun by criminals as a result. Were there unsavory elements among those who successfully immigrated during or after the war years? One has to assume so. Every population contains members who are less than law-abiding. 

But what isn’t arguable is that our country was enriched in myriad ways by the influx of European refugees — scientists like Albert Einstein and Hans Bethe, public servants like Madeleine Albright, cultural figures like Elie Wiesel and Hannah Arendt, political ones like Tom Lantos and Henry Kissinger, artists like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst.

And then there are the countless simple citizens who didn’t become famous, immigrants who became proud and productive Americans. They and their progeny are testimony to the fact that immigrants represent not a threat but an opportunity.

Immigration needs to be regulated and sponsored. In the postwar years, immigrants were required to have sponsors: a relative, friend or organizations that would undertake to ensure that immigrants would not become an undue burden on society. We should also continue to vet those claiming persecution in their homelands, which are often dangerous places that may be enemies of the U.S. 

But fears of terrorists or criminals lurking among the immigrants seeking shelter should not be a reason to oppose immigration altogether — or to cynically stoke fears to get votes.

(Rabbi Avi Shafran writes widely in Jewish and general media and blogs at He also serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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