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My Turn: Refusing Syrian refugees is not who we are

Last modified: 11/18/2015 1:03:20 AM
When will we learn?

On Monday, Gov. Maggie Hassan became the first (and at the time of this writing, the only) Democratic governor to join a long list of GOP governors in calling for a halt to the U.S. resettlement program for refugees from Syria. The governor’s opponent in the upcoming election for U.S. Senate, current Sen. Kelly Ayotte, agrees with this position.

Why these actions? Because a Syrian passport, believed to belong to one of the attackers, was found at the Bataclan Concert Hall following the terrorist slaughter in Paris on Nov. 13. Based on this evidence and a trace of the passport’s progress through Europe, one of the terrorists is believed to have slipped into France with the refugees now flooding into Europe in numbers not seen since World War II. (It is important to note, however, that authorities are also pursuing the credible alternate theory that the passport is a fake, planted by the terrorists to increase anger against Syrian refugees.)

America stands with France. We who felt our own towers crumble, saw the gash cut into the home of our own defenses, honored the heroes who sacrificed themselves to save others – we know the shock, the hurt, the anger, the determination. We know the fear. We will do what can and must be done to help France locate and punish any living perpetrators of this barbaric act, and we will take measures to protect our own country and citizens as well. These are not questions. They are the responsibilities of our leaders and rightful expectations of our citizens.

But we must not let the fear govern our actions. We are all afraid; there is no shame in admitting that. No one wants to believe that a Friday evening dinner out or attendance at a rock concert could end in blood and death, just as no one wants to imagine someone could fly his or her plane into a building. But how will we meet these fears? Will we examine the facts, respond to the threats, tighten security yet preserve our essential values? Or will we find the first group of “others” we can identify and shift responsibility onto their shoulders, an act that may feel like an accomplishment but serves only to turn us into oppressors, like those we claim to abhor?

The United States has a long history of categorizing people into otherness, long enough that we know well the results of such treatment. The list is too lengthy to be comprehensive here, but to name a few: Native Americans and expansion into the West, Africans kidnapped from that continent and brought here in chains, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924 (which specifically excluded several nationalities from immigrating to the United States), refusing to increase admission of Jewish refugees in the early 1940s due to fears some may have been German spies, Japanese internment camps in World War II, segregation and Jim Crow, the attacks on Muslims after the Iranian revolution in 1979, longtime unequal treatment of gays and lesbians, and so many more.

The result is now a truism, but answer this question: How did you come to be in the United States? Are you an immigrant? Were your parents? Your grandparents? Unless you are Native American, some ancestor was an immigrant. My ancestors fled pogroms in Russia and Ukraine. Without the refuge of the United States, I wouldn’t be here. What if your ancestors had been denied entry? What if they had been left somewhere to die, by sword or disease or starvation?

Syrian refugees are fleeing exactly this type of brutality. The violence that shattered Paris is everyday life in Syria; that is the reason these refugees left their home country. By categorically refusing to admit them, we stain them with collective guilt they do not deserve.

What’s more, we do this for little, if any, gain. At least three of the terrorists in Paris were French nationals. Statistically, these terrorists would seem to be the bigger threat; in other words, in the United States, we ought to be more concerned with U.S. citizens who have traveled to Middle East countries and received terrorist training. Or perhaps we should worry about those wishing to pursue their own brand of terrorism, like Timothy McVeigh. Excluding Syrian refugees will do nothing to catch these types of terrorists, but it will cause unnecessary additional suffering to the 10,000 Syrian people – the number the administration has said it will accept into the United States, which is a small proportion of those seeking asylum – who might have found respite and refuge here.

This is not who we should be. And when we are living up to our potential as a nation, it is not who we are.

We are not like the religious fanatics who carry out these heinous acts, choosing who ought to live and be safe and who must be condemned. The Statue of Liberty, given to us by France, doesn’t say, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, except when you are afraid.” We have made mistakes in the past, but surely we have learned by now that there can be no caveat for our fundamental character.

We are a courageous people. That’s what the Statue of Liberty’s entreaty means. We can welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses because we know that those who flee violence and oppression in one land – like the Syrian refugees – can, once offered safety and a fresh start, contribute something of value in this land of immigrants. We or our ancestors proved it to be true.

So by all means, enhance security. Refugees may have to endure a little extra processing time. Everyone should understand that after what happened in Paris.

But we should not be governed by fear. We should not become the oppressor and turn the refugees of an entire country into hated “others.” We must be better than that, and we cannot let the terrorists win.

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett of Bow is a writer, and former civil rights and civil liberties public policy advocate.)


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