After the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant vowed “to do everything humanly possible” to block Syrian refugees from entering Mississippi. Bryant was not alone. Governors in at least thirty states made similar announcements. Just about all these governors are Republicans. This fact, combined with settled precedent in immigration law, suggests that Bryant and the others were just playing to their base, but it is still worth discussing.
Before dismissing Bryant’s announcement on legal and/or moral grounds, let’s admit that there is a problem that Bryant was speaking to. The United States was founded on religious freedom. That means that all Americans are free to practice whatever religion they choose, or no religion at all. To some, that is now a scary policy with the emergence of radical Islam as a small part of what is the world’s second largest and fastest growing religion.
Currently, approximately 23% of the global population is Muslim. If current trends continue, Muslims will outnumber Christians by the end of this century. In a world with 2.5 billion Muslims, a radicalized faction of only 1% means 2.5 million extremists—slightly less than the population of Mississippi. A 10% radicalized minority of Muslims would equal 250 million. The population of the United States is 319 million. Personally, I find these figures concerning. A world with millions of people who want to kill innocent civilians is a scary place.
But we are insulated from all that here in Mississippi, right? Apparently not. In August two Mississippi State students were arrested when they tried to board a plane in Columbus with plans to travel to Syria to join ISIS. One was a cheerleader and honor student from Vicksburg whose father is a police officer. The other was a member of a family who were long-time and respected members of the Starkville community. The two students had become radicalized. We are kidding ourselves if we think that similar radicalized Muslims who cannot afford a plane ticket to Syria would never do something like, say, walk into a campus building and start shooting people. It could happen. Yes, it is more likely to happen in population centers on the east and west coasts. But it could happen here.
Is Governor Bryant blocking Syrian refugees from Mississippi the answer? Or is it even a possibility? The answer to both of these questions is no.
On the legal side, there is a developed body of law that dictates that immigration law is regulated at the federal level. The Constitution grants Congress with the power to set naturalization laws. This means that Congress controls immigration regulations. The executive branch enforces immigration laws enacted by Congress. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld this framework, most recently in Arizona v. U.S. In this 2012 decision the Court held that federal law preempts state immigration laws and enforcement. This means that Governor Bryant cannot stop Syrian immigrants from settling in Mississippi.
On the practical side, trying to block all Syrian refugees from entering Mississippi is an unrealistic response to a complicated problem. First, all Syrians are not Muslim. Ten percent of the population is Christian. Presumably, most or all of the Christians have left Syria or would like to. Does Governor Bryant want to block Syrian Christians who are fleeing ISIS? If so, he opens himself to accusations of racism.
Second, presumably everyone would agree that the vast majority of Syrian refugees are good people fleeing a country torn by civil war and invaded by ISIS. Assuming that the federal government allows some of these people to immigrate to the U.S., what purpose does blocking them from entering Mississippi serve? Is it because some are Muslims who may one day become radicalized? If so, that is already an issue with the people already here. More importantly, what would the legal difference be between blocking Syrian refugees from Mississippi and expelling all Muslims and others of Syrian descent from the state? That kind of talk would start reminding historians of a word that rhymes with Yahtzee.
Finally, I do not know why Mississippi would be in the business of trying to exclude people from settling in the state. The Mississippi economy is stagnant, at best. Mississippi is losing residents at an alarming pace. It is a bad trend.
Meanwhile, states with better economies like Washington and Colorado welcome Syrian refugees. Two hundred years of history should have taught Mississippians that discriminatory policies and fighting the clear tide of social progress is not a successful strategy for economic prosperity. But we still have not learned the lesson. Mississippi consistently marches into the future kicking and screaming to hold on to the past. The irony is that Mississippi calls itself ‘the hospitality state.’ Many people would say that is not really true. Governor Bryant’s statement regarding Syrian refugees supports their claim.