The bogus anti-refugee talking points that refuse to die

In this Oct. 28

Answering questions at a Republican presidential candidates’ forum in Iowa on Saturday, Sen. Ted Cruz had some strong words about President Obama’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

“With regard to Syrian refugees, I think Obama’s proposal to accept tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees is absolute lunacy,” Cruz said. “If you look at the current refugee wave flowing into Europe, one estimate was that 77 percent of those refugees are young men. The director of national intelligence told us it’s very likely that among those refugees going into Europe are a substantial number of ISIS terrorists.”

The problem: Each of those sentences contains a significant shading or outright misrepresentation of the truth.

Numerous news reports and media factchecks have demonstrated that proposed US refugee admissions from Syria are nowhere near the “hundreds of thousands.” A majority of the recent wave of seabound refugees to Europe, from various Middle Eastern countries, are men (of one age or another)—but that is not the case for the Syrian refugees who may be resettled in the US. And, though Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently expressed concern that ISIS could try to embed terrorists among the refugees to either Europe or the US, he did not say it was “very likely” that such infiltration was actually now taking place.

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Cruz’s statements were just the latest iteration of a set of anti-refugee talking points that have taken hold among GOP presidential candidates and conservative politicians around the country in recent months, amid an escalating crisis and calls for Western nations to increase refugee admissions. As the factchecks above indicate, these arguments have at times been exaggerated, ill-informed, or just false—and local media outlets have responded in different ways. Sometimes they have called up experts who push back. At other times, problematically, they have published the claims unchallenged—as in the case of one TV station covering Cruz’s comments Saturday. 

And sometimes, local newspapers have actively perpetuated the bogus talking points, presenting arguments that mirror Cruz’s as their own.

A case in point: In September, editorials appeared in nearly all of the 11 dailies nationwide owned by Georgia-based Morris Communications stridently arguing against admitting Syrian refugees—or indeed, any Middle Eastern migrants. The editorials—which popped up in markets stretching from Florida to Texas, Kansas to Alaska—were nearly identical, though they carried no indication of coming from a common source. An internal company email later leaked to media blogger Jim Romenesko revealed that the Morris head office had sent the editorial to each of the newspapers and mandated that they run it as their own, or write their own piece making the same argument.

The editorial was striking for moments of outright hostility to Muslims and people from the Middle East. Readers of the Morris-owned Topeka Capital-Journal, accustomed to more mild-mannered editorial-board offerings, might have been surprised on Sept. 22 to encounter warnings about “migrants from intractably retrograde cultures completely and fundamentally at odds with freedom-loving Western society—and, notably, our laws and cultures.” (Morris headquarters, as well as several Morris papers, did not respond to requests for comment from CJR.) 

This nativist point of view was bolstered by “facts” that don’t hold up to scrutiny. Just as Cruz did, the Morris editorial drastically inflated the number of Syrians coming to the US—“85,000 mostly Syrian refugees during the next year, and 100,000 in 2017.” In fact, these figures apply to the total refugees from all over the world who may be admitted to the US in the next two years. This constitutes an increase from a total of 70,000 in 2015, and the majority of the increase is likely to consist of Syrian refugees, but the number of Syrians is targeted at about 10,000 in 2016 and would still be a minority of the 100,000 total to be accepted in 2017.

A few Morris papers did correct this error in the version of the editorial they ran. A separate slippery passage, however, appeared in all 10 of the papers that ran the piece. Again like Cruz—not to mention Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Rep. Steve King—the Morris editorial refers to an “unprecedented migration wave” that contains an “inordinate number of healthy young men.” In tracking the sources of such claims, BBC News identified a “realm of internet memes, viral Facebook posts and right-wing commentary that have portrayed the refugees flooding out of the Middle East as largely composed of young male militants.”

The grain of truth here comes from stories about one particular group of refugees, not all of them Syrian, who have been arriving in Europe by boat in 2015; a clear majority of the roughly 700,000 sea arrivals are adult males, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But when it comes to the total population of 4.1 million registered Syrian refugees from which candidates for admission to the US and Europe would be drawn under the resettlement plans, the UNHCR reports a radically different demographic picture. In fact, 50.3 percent are female, 49.7 percent are male; nearly 40 percent are under 12 years old. Men ages 18-59 make up only 22.1 percent of the total.

The Morris editorial also posits a third bogus cautionary argument against Syrian refugee admissions: that the 9/11 hijackers were “allowed entry to the US through similar visas.” In fact, the 19 hijackers entered the US via business, tourist, and student visas that were approved—hastily and improperly, critics later charged—at embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia. The refugee-resettlement process is a separate procedure that does not involve visas. Any prospective refugee entrants to the US must first be referred by the UNHCR, an embassy, or a nongovernmental organization to the US Refugee Admissions Program, then vetted via the Departments of State and Homeland Security in a process that can take a year to 18 months and often ends in denial.

One Morris paper, notably, took a different approach. In the same week that the flawed editorial appeared in other Morris papers, the Jacksonville-based Florida Times-Union did run an argument urging Obama to reconsider his plans. But the Times-Union editorial appears to have been written in-house, and the differences between the two versions are stark. (Like the other Morris papers I reached out to, the Times-Union didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

The Times-Union piece makes a few of the same points as the original, but avoids the false ones. It acknowledges that there is a rigorous screening process in place for refugees while arguing that the process for Syria should be still more rigorous. Instead of using the inapt example of the 9/11 hijackers, the Times-Union uses the more appropriate cautionary tale of the Boston marathon bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, who indeed were brought to the US by their family as refugees from the Chechen conflict. The description of the number of refugees to be admitted under Obama’s plans is correct, and, though there’s still a dig at the motives of refugees, there’s no reference to waves of young men. The argument is tweaked, too: rather than a call to halt Middle Eastern refugee admissions as a matter of “self-preservation,” the piece urges the US to “slow down, take time and limit admission of Syrian refugees to only those who can be safely screened and vetted.”

There’s also no reference to “intractably retrograde cultures.” It’s probably not a coincidence that the Times-Union editorial is both more factual and less vitriolic than the one that ran in other papers.

Agree or disagree, a professionally crafted piece like this one demonstrates how to make a controversial case without straying from the facts. The politicians on this side of the issue should take note. But as long as they continue to parrot falsehoods, reporters and editorialists must do their part to make sure truth wins out.

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Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.