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Should US take Syrian refugees? Millennials say yes, emphatically.

Models of thought

More than two-thirds of Millennials say the US should accept Syrian refugees – higher than for other age groups. That support shows their different experiences and worldviews, many say.

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    Ten-year-old migrant girl Nour from Syria poses for a photo with her traditional praying clothes after the Iftar (breaking fast) meal at a refugee shelter in a former hotel in Berlin. Germany took in more than one million refugees in 2015. The US is about one fourth of the way to its goal of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.
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Chris McLaren is no bleeding heart when it comes to refugees and whether the United States should admit more of them from the Middle East.

The 24-year-old Baltimore resident says the US has to consider the impact on a still-fragile economy, and that careful screening for security risks is a must. But outside of those two caveats, the sales representative for an office solutions company says he supports welcoming more refugees from the Middle East – in particular from Syria.

“These people are just looking for a safe haven and for the opportunity to provide a better life for their families,” Mr. McLaren says. “America is the melting pot, people have come here for generations for those same reasons, and I think we can probably open the door a little wider.”

As it turns out, McLaren’s views on refugees are broadly in sync with those of his fellow Millennials, the demographic group of 18- to 34-year-olds who are in college, working first jobs, and starting to build careers and families.

A new public opinion survey released this week by the Brookings Institution finds that a majority of Americans overall (59 percent) supports admitting refugees from the Middle East and from Syria in particular. But an especially high percentage of Millennials (68 percent) favor the idea.

Interviews suggest that Millennials’ openness toward refugees is rooted, in part, in an increasingly diverse and technologically connected society. Young Americans, more than their elders, have grown up rubbing elbows with families of diverse global backgrounds, and seeing media that connect them to global news.

“I would say that young people today have been more exposed to Muslim people, they have Muslim friends in school and they know by now they’re good people, they just want to be safe and hopefully get a little bit ahead in life like everybody else,” says Jasmime Harris, a 21-year-old communications student at Montgomery College in Maryland.

Why Millennials care

The new survey comes as the US struggles to reach President Obama’s pledge to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by October. As of the beginning of this month, the US had welcomed fewer than 2,500 Syrian refugees, although there were signs of the pace of resettlement accelerating.

At the same time, some governors, mostly Republicans, have stood by their pledge to refuse any Syrian refugees. And this week, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump recommitted to his idea of a full ban on noncitizen Muslims entering the country in the wake of the Orlando, Fla., mass shooting committed by an American-born Muslim.

Ms. Harris, who also holds down a job as a cashier at a Corner Bakery in Washington, says that America can do more for people who need a refuge from war – as long as it doesn’t neglect its own in the process.

“America at times gives more help to countries outside than to the people who are struggling here,” she says, “so I would say, 'Yes, I do support giving those people a chance here – just don’t forget about home.' ”

Others say that the constant and up-close exposure Millennials have to the Middle East’s refugee crisis through the electronic devices is also a factor.

“We’re getting so much information all the time about the conditions and what’s causing millions of people to leave their homes in these countries, I really think it’s a question of exposure,” says Evelyn Castle, a 27-year-old southern Californian who works with a small nongovernment organization, eHealth Africa, in Sierra Leone. “When you know that refugees are killing themselves because of the conditions in the camps they’re living in, that kind of information encourages a feeling that we can do better.”

McLaren, in Baltimore, seconds that perspective. “Younger people are seeing more of this horrific news all the time,” he says, “and that can lead to heightened generosity, like more support for refugees.”

But he says he suspects something else is at play as well – what he calls “American young people’s longer maturation process today.”

“Older generations were fully responsible for themselves at an earlier age, and that probably makes them a little more careful about how much we can do for everybody else,” McLaren says. “But younger people are taking longer to take full economic responsibility for themselves, and I think that allows us to be more generous with things like helping refugees than those who grew up totally dependent on themselves.”

Some Millennials were careful to emphasize that they favor the US being more open to refugees not as a solution to the crisis, but because they want the US to lead by example.

“With millions of people displaced from Syria alone, the solution to this is not going to be to bring more and more people here, even though we have the resources to do it,” says Adam Thompson, a 33-year-old who hails from Humboldt County in northern California but now works with eHealth Africa in Nigeria. “But how can we expect countries with a lot less resources to take in more refugees unless we do more ourselves?”

How they feel about Trump's Muslim ban

Several of the Millennials interviewed noted that the Brookings survey was completed before the Orlando mass shooting at a gay club, and they wondered if that tragedy might alter somewhat their generation’s views on Middle East refugees.

Events like Orlando and the San Bernardino shootings tend to cause a spike in anti-Muslim sentiments, but that settles back down, says Shibley Telhami, the Brookings adjunct senior fellow and University of Maryland Middle East expert who conducted the survey.

“It bumps up, but it doesn’t last over time,” Dr. Telhami says. “People have already figured out who they are.”

The Brookings survey also revealed that a greater share of Millennials oppose Mr. Trump’s call for a “total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The poll found that 76 percent of Millennials reject Trump’s ban, compared with 61 percent of all Americans.

Harris, who is African-American, says she guesses that African-Americans in particular would find the proposal offensive because of their experience with racism and discrimination.

“I understand that the things Trump says might ring a bell with people, like building a wall with Mexico might sound good to someone having trouble finding a job,” she says. “But I could never go with this idea of judging a whole people based on some false views or the actions of a few,” she adds. “As African-Americans, we understand that kind of thinking, we’ve had to deal with it for a long time.”

Ms. Castle, who like Mr. Thompson was in Washington this week for work meetings, suggests that the ban holds less appeal to Millennials because they are less religious. “So it’s less of a you-against-us thing,” she says.

Indeed, Thompson says that if anything surprises him, it’s that 24 percent of Millennials said they support Trump’s Muslim ban.

“I’m actually confused to hear about this 20 percent of Millennials who don’t oppose it,” he says. “The blanket rejection of a category of people, in this case based on their religion, just seems so un-American to me and against common sense.” 

[Editor's note: A paragraph near the end of this story was updated to clarify the current location of the quoted sources.]

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