America must fight xenophobic impulse, welcome refugees

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Last Saturday, the world awoke to words and images of tremendous violence in Paris. Hundreds of civilians were gunned down with impunity as they went about their business at a number of French cultural institutions. This lead officials to question current security measures and many European citizens to suspect that extremism is flowing across weak European Union (UN) borders.

Terror does not usually come from the barrel of a Kalashnikov or a jihadi message board. Western citizens may be uncertain of what the attacks mean for them, but the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have already migrated or are currently seeking shelter in Europe are now guaranteed to face an unprecedented wave of cultural violence. News that one gunman might have entered the EU alongside refugees has exacerbated a nativist fervor in France and other parts of Europe, where tension over foreign immigration was already high.

The United States has not failed to notice. Many Republican state officials, including Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX), have hopped on the xenophobic bandwagon, declaring that their states will refuse to accept any of the 10,000 Syrian refugees that President Barack Obama previously promised to take in. According to Abbott, "Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees being resettled in Texas... any one of whom could be connected to terrorism.”

Although states do not directly participate in refugee resettlement, a task left to federal agencies, Abbott's xenophobic position was reinforced on Thursday by bipartisan legislation passed in the House. The bill, which is expected to evade the executive veto through a congressional majority, will force Syrian and Iraqi refugees to undergo a stringent vetting process before admission to the United States.

These refugees have already lost years in fetid border-camps, struggling to regain the stability that western-catalyzed conflict had destroyed at home. Many have already undergone background checks and document verification processes. These people don’t have time to wait on McCarthyist agitators; no endangered life should. Whether grounded in genuine security concerns or Islamophobia, denying compassion to a small fraction of the displaced and disabused refugees only bolsters the effectiveness of ISIS’s mission: to spread fear and seed mistrust.

Nativism runs deep in this country’s history, and it is inextricably linked to the antiquated yet still debated question of who truly qualifies as “American.” Immigrants have long faced derision from groups claiming to be "true" Americans. The internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor is no exception to this trend. With the support of a fearful public, these citizens were rounded up on the sole basis of their ethnicity and detained for over four years.

The world cannot bear to repeat this unconstitutional violation of due process built on unsubstantiated distrust. But we are doing it right now. Some senior lawmakers and political heavyweights have not only chosen to ignore history, but have decided to hold up Japanese-American internment as a case study in support of rejecting refugees from Iraq and Syria.

David Bowers, the longtime mayor of Roanoke, Virginia stated on Wednesday that “President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.” Just like Abbott and many lawmakers across party lines, Bower’s position isn’t just historically inaccurate and intrinsically racist: It also fails to understand at even a basic level how refugee resettlement works.

According to experienced immigration lawyer Scott Hicks, the resettlement process for refugees is a multi-step affair that requires numerous background checks over a long period of time. Refugees actually have no say at all where they will be resettled; that is determined by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), which initially vets resettlement candidates. Once a refugee is selected to go to America, federal authorities conduct even more background checks and certifications before they consider permanent resettlement. You guessed it — resettlement is not even guaranteed at this point.

It is not surprising then, that none of the over 1.5 million Muslim immigrants permanently resettled in the United States between 2001 and 2013 have been involved in acts of domestic terrorism. Any willing and resourceful jihadist would likely fly here with a temporary visa.

Highly effective and often tragically overbearing security measures are already in place. Therefore, this new legislative measure to delay resettlement accomplishes nothing but satisfy an unsettling American impulse toward xenophobia. Now we must treat refugees with compassion rather than derision; they have already paid their dues to our unreasonable fear.