Despite Republican warnings, Palestinian refugees unlikely to storm US borders

Former US president Donald Trump, Florida’s DeSantis pressure Washington to close gates to Gazans seeking refuge on other side of world

Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the Gaza Strip, October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the Gaza Strip, October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

WASHINGTON (AP) – Former US president Donald Trump and other top Republicans want the US to seal its borders against a potential mass exodus of Palestinians fleeing war in the Gaza Strip, suggesting that a surge of civilian refugees could allow extremists into the country.

But such a wave is highly unlikely.

People fleeing the fighting, triggered by a brutal Hamas massacre inside Israel on October 7, are largely barred from getting out of Gaza, and US law already gives authorities broad leeway to deny people entry into the country if they present security risks. Cases of extremists crossing into the US illegally are also virtually non-existent.

Here’s a closer look at what’s being said and what the realities are.

Who wants to ban Palestinian refugees from the US?

Trump has been the most outspoken on this issue. The former US president vowed while campaigning in Iowa this week to bar refugees from Gaza and immediately expand a Muslim travel ban he imposed via executive order during his first administration.

Pointing to the October 7 attacks carried out by Hamas in Israel — in which some 1,400 civilians and IDF soldiers were killed, and more than 200 hostages were taken by the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas — which sparked Israel’s retaliation and war in Gaza, Trump also suggested in an online post that “The same people that raided Israel are pouring into our once beautiful USA, through our TOTALLY OPEN SOUTHERN BORDER.”

Trump’s original ban barred travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries but was heavily criticized as discriminatory and drew legal challenges all the way to the Supreme Court. The high court’s justices eventually upheld the Trump administration’s third attempt at the ban, which included travelers from North Korea and some from Venezuela. It was revoked after US President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.

Gaza refugees also have become a flashpoint among many of the presidential hopefuls vying to become Trump’s principal challenger and cut into the commanding early lead the former president has built in the 2024 Republican primary.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the US should not take in any Palestinian refugees fleeing Gaza because they “are all antisemitic.” Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who was also Trump’s ex-ambassador to the United Nations, countered that “America has always been sympathetic to the fact that you can separate civilians from terrorists.” Never Back Down, DeSantis’ super PAC, is running an ad implying Haley is soft on allowing refugees into the country, which the Haley campaign rebuts as “false.”

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott endorsed the US turning away Gaza refugees because authorities will be unable to determine “who is safe to bring in and who’s not.”

Will there be a crush of Palestinian refugees headed for the US?

Probably not. Those fleeing the northern part of Gaza, where Israel has warned that a ground war is coming, have enough trouble simply moving to the southern part of the territory due to Israeli airstrikes against terrorist targets and rockets fired by Hamas.

Israel has fortified its border with Gaza’s 141-square-mile (365-square-kilometer) territory to prevent terrorists from sneaking into the country after some 1,500 crossed into the country on October 7. But rather than triggering additional border runs, the displacement has unleashed a humanitarian crisis throughout Gaza, where nearly 1 million people are facing severe shortages of housing, food and clean drinking water.

Palestinians, some with foreign passports hoping to cross into Egypt and others waiting for aid, wait at the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 16, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Those making it to the southern part of the territory can usually go no further because Egypt, the only other country that borders Gaza, has closed its crossing, at least for now. Even if crossings eventually resume, Arab and European countries have so far been hesitant to take large numbers of Palestinian refugees, especially after receiving many people fleeing recent displacement in Syria.

Couldn’t Palestinian refugees eventually get to the US?

The United States does accept refugees from around the world annually, but the process often takes years and ultimately admits relatively few people.

Prospective refugees are generally referred to the State and Homeland Security departments by the UN’s refugee agency. US authorities then vet them to determine if they can really be considered refugees, and for things like ties to extremists.

During the last fiscal year that ended September 30, the US aimed to admit 125,000 people but ultimately only admitted about 60,000. The biggest numbers of resettled refugees came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Afghanistan and Burma. Only 56 came from the Palestinian territories.

Another option is the White House and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offering some Palestinians humanitarian parole, allowing them to come temporarily to the US. Historically, that has been used to let people from places like Cuba and Vietnam come to the US, though Ukrainians recently fleeing Russia’s war have been allowed to stay for up to two years if they have a US financial backer.

US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Biden has been vocal about Israel’s right to defend itself. The president traveled to Israel on Wednesday and announced humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza that would flow from Egypt and included $100 million in US funding. But his administration has given little indication that it would be willing to make humanitarian parole exceptions for people fleeing Gaza.

Would bans improve US national security?

Many of the perceived threats Trump and other Republicans are most worried about stopping are already addressed by existing US law. The Immigration and Nationality Act already blocks potential extremist threats under Section 212 (f), which gives broad authority to bar people who aren’t US citizens from entering the country if doing so would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Meanwhile, reports of extremists entering the United States by land from Mexico or Canada are almost unheard of. Alex Nowrasteh of the pro-immigration Cato Institute documented nine foreign-born extremists who entered the United States illegally from 1975 through last year. Three entered Mexico in 1984 when they were 5 years old or younger and were convicted of plotting to attack Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 2007. The other six entered through Canada.

That’s not to say it couldn’t happen. Arrests for people crossing the border illegally from Mexico for the last fiscal year are expected to be the second-highest on record after the previous year’s 2.2 million. DHS said in a national “threat assessment” this year that people with “potential terrorism connections” continue to attempt to enter the country.

Arrests of people who crossed illegally from Mexico and were on the Terrorist Screening Dataset, known as the “terrorist watchlist,” jumped to 151 from October through August, compared to 98 during the previous 12-month period and 15 the year before. It was just 11 in the previous four years combined.

But the list is a compilation of names that have aroused suspicion for any number of reasons and includes people from all over the world. The increase in the number of individuals on it also remains statistically small given the overall rise in migrants apprehended on the border.

“There is strict national security vetting to determine whether individuals coming from anywhere in the world have ties to terrorist organizations,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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