There has been a shocking and sad display of political desperation lately as Republican governors and politicians nationwide move to demonize refugees from the middle east and, in particular, Syria. There is no doubt that the threats which terrorism presents are serious and must be addressed. However, we cannot lose our principals, freedoms and humanity in protecting against terrorism. I am in favor of restricting travel to the U.S. and requiring extensive checks prior to issuance of visas to individuals from certain high threat countries. We must remain vigilant, especially at this moment in history where a murderous cult such as ISIS has risen. We have obligations by law and treaty to however, provide safe haven to refugees. We have that obligation not only to protect others in times of war or danger in their countries, but to protect ourselves. A refugee is defined at a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. In such situations we are, as civilized persons and societies, obligated to grant those refugees "refuge". Refuge is nothing but a safe place, or shelter from danger. If we begin to turn women and children fleeing the inhumane medieval war in Syria away, what does that say about our own humanity, our commitment to the concept of helping those most in need? What precedent will turning Syrian women and children seeking refuge away in the event we ourselves might one day seek refuge?
Today, Syria is beyond doubt dangerous and in a state of war. Much of the country has been leveled in bombings and murder, decapitations, and rape are now de rigor. Those escaping Syria such as women, children and the elderly are beyond doubt bona fide refugees and therefore we have a legal obligation under U.S. law to accept them and provide those who request it, safe haven. Refuge and safe haven principals are ancient and long established, having root in our basic sense of compassion for our fellow man. It is thus all the more shocking to hear those who often profess great religiosity, oppose so vehemently helping individuals fleeing the murderous and insane war and violence ongoing in Syria today. Which bring us to the news of the day.
As Republicans have seized upon the tragedy of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris to maneuver politically, they have found fodder in demonizing Syrian refugees as terrorist threats. More than half of the nation's governors now say Syrian refugees are not welcome in their states claiming they pose a high risk as likely terrorists. In Texas, the health commissioner issued a threat over Thanksgiving weekend to the Dallas branch of the International Rescue Committee which earlier this month had said that it supports accepting further Syrian refugees. The Texas health commissioner threatened to terminate the IRC's contract with the state if they continued to assist with Syrian refugee resettlement. The protesting governors cite security concerns and claim that Syrian refugees pose a great risk of danger and terrorism. Today, USCIS published an interesting item on its splash page titled "Here's what the Refugee Screening Process Looks Like". This posting by USCIS is notable because rarely does it so quickly and obviously wade into the midst of an ongoing policy debate. The posting includes a video narrated by Jeh Johnson the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security explaining the extensive refugee screening process in an apparent attempt to refute the notion that terrorists will slip into the U.S. as refugees. See Video.
What is clear from the information posted by USCIS, including a detailed flow chart of refugee screening and processing, is that no Syrian refugee who is a terrorist is likely (even remotely) to be permitted to enter the U.S. in refugee status. If anything, the USCIS posting proves that the least dangerous of all visitors coming to the U.S. are probably Syrian refugees. For example, screening of Syrian refugees prior to their admission to the U.S. includes biometric checks against the Department of State Consular Lookout and Support System, the Security Advisory Opinion and FBI, DOD Defense Forensics identification systems, and then extensive in person interviews by specially trained officers who have undergone training on refugee law, fraud detection and prevention, security protocols, interviewing techniques, credibility analysis and country conditions research including classified intelligence briefings. Thereafter, additional enhanced review is conducted including field investigations, family and business investigations, and monitoring of watch lists and other ongoing new intelligence information. No less than seven U.S. government agencies review each applicant before they can enter as a refugee. Only after all of the above and normally an 18-24 month waiting period, is an applicant granted permission to board a U.S. bound flight as a refugg. On arrival, they are then met at the airport by a non-profit government approved resettlement agency which has previously made financial arrangements for their housing and support. The entire flow chart can be found here.
Granting safe haven to those fleeing war or danger is not only a legal obligation of the U.S., it is also a basic reflection of our society's civility. In this moment of heated rhetoric and intensified fears, it is urgent that cooler heads prevail. A vast majority of Syrian refugees are elderly, women and children. Striking out against them, of all people, is misplaced and wrong. It is imperative that the Federal Government uphold U.S. law and international obligations and continue to provide refuge to those most in need to protection. Failing to do so will not only be a failure of leadership and a surrender to nativism, but also a betrayal of the humanity we as Americans should aspire to every day.