Our Enemy Is ISIS, Not Refugees Fleeing ISIS
Last Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to make it almost impossible for people from Syria and Iraq, fleeing the brutality of ISIS and Bashar al-Assad, to find refuge in the United States. It is worth reflecting on what this means for our country.
Just a few weeks ago the world came together, stunned and heartbroken over the image of a three-year-old Syrian child’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. His tragic death focused our attention on the desperate plight of so many Syrians who have fled the horror of ISIS and Assad’s army. We called it the humanitarian issue of our day. We called forth images of the Statue of Liberty and our proud history as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution and war.
Just days later, we hear calls to slam the door. To shut down our borders. To ignore that great symbol of refuge standing in New York Harbor.
We should remember that the people we will shut out are those very children who touched our hearts just weeks ago. We watched in horror as desperate mothers and fathers loaded their infants into precarious rafts, awestruck that the risk of death was preferable to whatever terror they were fleeing.
We are a country of immigrants. In the past year, about 70,000 refugees from almost 70 countries have resettled in the United States. Fewer than 2000 were Syrians – mostly children, women, and the elderly who have been the victims of horrific violence and acts of terrorism, like ISIS’s victims in Paris. By contrast, some nations have accepted hundreds of thousands of these desperate people. They have come here only after passing the most rigorous screening procedures for any population of travelers, which involve multiple federal law enforcement agencies and require anywhere from 18 months to two years to complete.
Vermont has a proud and compassionate history of welcoming refugees, as Governor Shumlin has demonstrated in upholding our legacy, in the face of the knee-jerk retreats signaled by some states. These new Vermonters have enriched our communities culturally, socially and economically.
Yet legislation reflexively introduced in Congress, like that approved in the House on Nov. 19, would collectively punish an entire population of people for one reason only: their country of origin. It does so based on the crimes of less than a dozen individuals, only one of whom may have been of Syrian nationality.
We should reject this shortsighted, unnecessary, impulsive response. It will do nothing to make us safer. Instead it punishes thousands of innocent people who are fleeing atrocities by ISIS and others -- the very same barbaric terrorists we are trying to defeat -- as they struggle to escape being killed in Syria.
At least one candidate for President has spoken of rounding up Syrians and sending them home. We must never forget the U.S. internment camps during World War II, when thousands of Japanese Americans were imprisoned for no other reason than their country of origin. It was a shameful period in our history, and one that should not be repeated.
Others running for President suggest that we should admit only refugees who are Christians. Is that the kind of nation we want to become, when our Constitution guarantees religious liberty? As governors, presidential candidates, and many members of Congress call for slamming the door on Syrians fleeing death and destruction, France’s President Hollande has shown leadership by reaffirming his government’s intention to accept 30,000 refugees over the next two years. This is the example also shown by our neighbor to the north, Canada.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, once, herself, a refugee from Czechoslovakia, reminds us of the millions of refugees who have come to our shores in the 67 years since she arrived with her family. Like them, the Syrian people, whose country is being destroyed, have no choice but to leave.
We are all horrified by what happened in Beirut and Paris. We need an effective, thoughtful strategy for countering ISIS and other terrorist organizations. This is what we should be debating, because what we have done so far is not working. ISIS is our enemy. The Syrian people fleeing ISIS are not.
Intolerance has no place in this great and good country. Accepting refugees is a part of our history, our culture, of who we are, and it can be done safely with the proper screening procedures. This week, we give thanks for our freedom and for the American tradition of serving as a beacon of hope to those who are persecuted and in need of refuge. It would be a cruel irony if a terrorist attack in France caused us to abandon the American values embodied in France’s gift to America, the Statue of Liberty.
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[Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is Vermont’s senior United States Senator]
David Carle: 202-224-3693
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