What do Americans really think about Syrian refugees?

What do Americans really think about the Syrian refugee crisis, and how have their views changed in light of the Paris attack last November and the San Bernardino attack in December? Brookings’s Governance Studies Senior Fellow Bill Galston has explored these questions in depth. At a Brookings event in February, he traced the transition in public sentiment from humanitarian sympathy to national security anxiety.

As recently as September 2015, Galston said, the Pew Research Center reported that three quarters of Americans supported the Obama administration’s proposition to accept 10,000 refugees into the United States. 44 percent felt the U.S. should be doing more to deal with the crisis, while just 19 percent thought the country should be doing less. A strong majority (83 percent) said that the United States should provide direct humanitarian assistance to the refugees, and three in four (73 percent) thought the U.S. should support European search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. Americans’ humanitarian sentiments were linked to a sense of liability, Galston suggested, highlighting a CNN-ORC poll in which more than half of Americans (54 percent) felt that the United States and its allies bore some responsibility for the migrant crisis. This sentiment was shared broadly by 56 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of Independents, and 50 percent of Republicans. 

Public opinion began to shift, however, in the wake of November 13 terror attacks in Paris. Asked about the best approach to take with refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, 53 percent of Americans said that the United States should stop accepting refugees altogether (69 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats). 11 percent of Americans, including 9 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans, reported that the United States should accept Christians only. Although sentiment shifted, humanitarian concern did not disappear entirely. When asked to consider the process by which the U.S. government vets migrants, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that a slim majority (53 percent) believed refugees should be admitted to the United States if they successfully complete a security clearance process. 

Concern for personal safety and national security, Galston said, has led to broad support for an aggressive U.S. foreign policy.

Concern for personal safety and national security became paramount after the December 2 terror attacks in San Bernardino. 83 percent of those polled by Qunnipiac University thought a major terrorist attack was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to occur in the United States in the near future. 58 percent said that homegrown jihadists posed the greatest threat to U.S. security, while just 16 percent cited terrorists hiding among Syrian refugees. A slim majority of Americans (52percent) remained opposed to accepting refugees into the United States, but the partisan break intensified, with Republicans opposed 84-14 percent and Democrats 23-68 percent. 

The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino broke through the consciousness of the American people, Galston said, citing a NBC/ WSJ poll in which Americans identified the attacks as the defining news events of the year. 65 percent of Americans expressed concern that they or someone they love would be the victim of a terrorist attack, that 60 percent disapproved of the president’s strategy to combat ISIS, and that 63 percent believe the United States is losing the war against ISIS. Concern for personal safety and national security, Galston said, has led to broad support for an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, 78 percent of Americans favor some kind of military action against ISIS, while 42 percent think that action should include both combat troops and air strikes. Just 12 percent believe the U.S. should take no military action. 

Americans’ hawkish temperament heading into the 2016 election stands in sharp contrast to public mood just eight years ago, when then-Senator Obama campaigned as a peace maker. The tectonic shift in opinion of U.S. foreign policy, Galston concluded, underscores impact of high profile events and the plasticity of public sentiment.