Tuesday, November 17, 2015

America and Refugees: Two Histories

Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland (Daily Mail)
In the days following the atrocious attacks in Paris, American politicians have wasted no time in laying the blame squarely where it does not belong: on the shoulders of the refugees fleeing the same kind of horror we collectively gasped at on Friday.

Many state Republican governors (and one Democrat) pledged not to accept Syrian refugees in their states, citing safety concerns. They feel that because one of the Paris attackers may have posed as a Syrian refugee, that their states will be the next to fall victim to a terrorist attack at the hands of a pseudo-refugee. The cognitive dissonance is especially rich with Governor Charlie Baker from Massachusetts, a state that began as a colony of people fleeing a volatile political environment.

To begin with, the idea that Syrian refugees are just coming over to America without any kind of vetting process is absurd. It typically takes 12-18 months from the time of application to be able to enter the United States. On top of this, less than 1% of refugees worldwide are ever actually resettled to a third country. This small, highly vetted group is not coming to America to commit terrorist acts. They are coming to America and other Western nations to escape the very terrorism these governors and other reactionaries are accusing them of trying to further.

But this all flies in the face of another issue: the main proponents of the Paris attacks were citizens of EU nations. Preventing only Syrians from coming to the United States does not solve for those radicalized in the very nations they seek to destroy. Slandering Syrian refugees in order to score political points by scaring one's electorate does absolutely nothing for national security, and instead further inflames anti-Muslim sentiment which helps drive radicalization.

It does, however, call to mind a disgraceful time in the United States. During WWII, the US State Department tightened immigration policy, fearing that Jews fleeing Hitler and Nazism could be made to act as German agents in the US. In an infamous case, Washington turned away the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner trying to find a place for over 900 Jewish refugees, forcing it to return to Europe, where over a quarter of the ship's passengers went on to perish in the Holocaust.

But America has proven itself a world leader in this field in the past, with no major issues. From 1975 to 1997, nearly 1.3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States from Indochina following the fall of Saigon. In the first few months alone, 130,000 Vietnamese were resettled from a landscape scarred by a war fought in part by the United States.

We have a choice here, as a nation. We can look back at our WWII policy, which hid behind xenophobia and disallowed Eastern Europe's victims into our borders, sending many to the gas chambers as a result. Or, we can lead the world, much like we did following the Vietnam War, and accept refugees coming from a region we have played a large part in destabilizing. The alternative is not just failing as a nation on a moral level, but serves up those seeking a better life (into which many of us just happened to be born) to groups like ISIS as either victims or recently spurned recruits.

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