It is not for an economist to adjudicate between the president of the United States, who feels he is appealing to our better angels by asking our blessing for his plan to grant 10,000 refugees from the Syrian wars entry into our country, and his critics who fear that the wave might include immigrants coming not for refuge but to do us harm, not here to assimilate but to retain the customs and laws that have brought their homelands chaos and penury. The dispute, in short, is between Barack Obama who contends he is following a long-standing, humane American tradition of accepting the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses, and equally well-intentioned congressmen and governors who respond that he is ignoring his first obligation – to keep America and its citizens safe from harm. They add that it is inappropriate to argue that America must not repeat the moral error of turning away Jews who sought to escape Hitler’s death camps by turning away Syrians, among them some pledged to destroy the values fleeing Jews were attempting to come here to enjoy.
But an economist can contribute two things to the debate. The first is a self-evident bit of arithmetic. If the vetting process is as robust as we are led to believe by the president, ignoring the contrary view of its likely effectiveness by the head of the FBI, we can concede that it will be, say 99% effective. Not bad for government work. That means that only 1% of the 10,000 entrants, or 100 applicants, will have slipped through the vetting net. It is estimated that the units that attacked France consisted of somewhere between eight and twenty Islamic terrorists. So even with a robust, almost-but-not-quite fool-proof vetting procedure, we will have admitted between five and eight terrorist units capable of doing to one of our cities what they have done to Paris.
And of course the vetting procedure is unlikely to come close to 99% perfection. One need not be a racist or insensitive to the plight of many refugees to believe that serious jihadis, with their access to stolen and forged documents, will slip through the net. The New York Times says vetting will include review of the applicants’ “histories, family origins, and law enforcement and past travel and immigration records,” information that it just might be difficult to obtain in bomb- and war-ravaged Syria. Or to refuse to give weight to the president’s argument that the bulk of the refugees are harmless women, children and men over the age of sixty. A women was blown up when French police raided the apartment in which the mastermind of the Paris assault was engaged in a shoot-out with the police, women in burkas have attempted to stab Israelis and served as suicide bombers in many of the world’s troubled regions, and very young children have proved dangerous suicide bombers and knife wielders. Men over sixty have not exactly acted as “wiser heads” to restrain inflammatory talk, deter travel of younger men to Syria for training, or provide the cooperation that many police forces have been requesting.
So much for the math. Economists teach that incentives matter: they affect behavior. So we are fortunate that there are incentives available that could make the vetting process more thorough than it might otherwise be. No, not the $142 million in bonuses paid out to the Veterans Administration’s bureaucrats for their stellar work in arranging medical care for our veterans. Instead, strategic placement of those approved for entry might do the trick.
Surely the Secret Service would be comfortable if, say, a few dozen of the new, cleared arrivals were housed within easy proximity of the White House. After all, none of the other residents of the area have been so carefully vetted as these mostly Syrian refugees will have been. Then, dozens more can be housed right up close to the whatever home the Obamas select when they leave the White House, easing the worries of the security detail that will accompany them to their new quarters – none of these vetted people should be of concern to the Secret Service. Since the administration rejects representative Michael McCaul’s bill requiring the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of the FBI, and the Director of National Intelligence to personally certify that every refugee from Syria and Iraq seeking resettlement here is not a threat, the unhappy governors of the receiving states could promise to place vetted immigrants in these officials’ neighborhoods and in their children’s schools. The prospect of having the people they are asked to vet as neighbors might focus their minds. Ditto for the underlings who actually do the paperwork.
Even these incentives won’t guarantee that among the 10,000 applicants there is not one, or two, or ten, or one hundred radical or merely radicalizable Muslims. But the procedure I have described would guarantee that the vetters will do their very, very best to get vetting right. If this works, we can ask members of parole boards who favor early release to accept the parolee as a house guest for, say, six months after release. And members of congress to subject themselves to whatever laws they impose on the rest of us. There is no end of possibilities for using incentives other than bonuses, which seem to become entitlements more than earned rewards, to induce government workers to make the little extra effort of doing their jobs. Incentives that promise avoidance of pain – terrorist neighbors being one – rather than extra goodies.