Recently Governor Wolf courageously and admirably said that refugees from Syria would be welcome in Pennsylvania. At the same time, the governors of 26 other states announced that they wanted to block Syrian refuges from settling in their respective states. Let’s put aside the fact that under the federal Refugee Act of 1980 and relevant Supreme Court precedents, governors have no such power. The fact that these governors and others would go out of their way to inform desperate people fleeing for their lives that they are unwelcome is extremely troubling.
As a Jewish person, I know well how our nation turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. In one of many examples, a German ship called the MS St. Louis brought over 900 Jewish men, women and children to our shores. The passengers were so close to refuge that they could actually see the harbor and the lights of Miami, but we turned them away and sent them back to Germany. Many of those people later perished in the Holocaust.
We cannot make the same mistake again. Instead, we must embrace and embody the words found at our nation’s front door, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. We must do our part to rescue those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and, in this case, trying to escape oppression, violence, and death.
Some have argued that terrorists may be hiding among the groups of Syrian refugees landing on beaches across Europe. But this concern, while legitimate, is not a reason to deny refuge to everyone.
Refugees who wish to enter the United States undergo a vetting process that takes 18-24 months. The process is thorough, careful, and constantly refined and improved. It involves screenings by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the National Counterterrorism Center, and three federal government departments. Applicants who cannot prove that they are subject to an imminent threat of violence or persecution are rejected. Children make up half of all people admitted under refugee status. Less than three percent of those admitted are single men of combat age.
It’s a process designed to keep Americans safe, and it works. No refugee has ever committed a terrorism-related crime on US soil.
Is the process infallible? No. Is it possible that a bad actor could sneak through? Yes. But that is always true, in a whole host of contexts. Sometimes someone who buys a gun uses it to shoot up a move theater or an elementary school (causing far more annual deaths in the US than terrorism). But we don’t react by prohibiting everyone from buying a gun. Similarly, the standard immigration process sometimes admits someone who does something bad. But we don’t close our borders entirely as a result. That would be irrational.
We’ve all seen the photos of dead children washing up on the beaches of Europe. We’ve all heard the stories of families who have risked their lives and surrendered all their possessions to avoid the slaughterhouse that Syria has become. Are we going to ignore all of this and refuse to help? Are we going to let the actions of a few terrorist thugs cause us to abandon our basic humanity?
It would be tragic if we give in to fear, xenophobia, and indifference to the suffering of others. Among all of the other sad things about doing that, it is what ISIS wants us to do. They are recruiting people by telling them that the West is hostile to Muslims and indifferent to their suffering. Allowing people to rot and die on foreign beaches would play right into their hands.
Americans are better than that. We pride ourselves on helping those in need. And we can all be grateful that we have a governor who sees the good in us.