Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, Commemorating World Refugee Day

Today, we commemorate World Refugee Day.  It is a day we make clear that we stand with those who have survived the horrors of war, torture, and persecution.  It is a day when we remember our common humanity and the moral imperative to love and care for one another.  I can think of no better time than now to pause and remember those fundamental principles. The rhetoric of hate and intolerance has reached a frightening pitch in this country, much of it directed against innocent victims of persecution.  We must forcefully reject this un-American rhetoric.  With more than 65 million people forcibly displaced around the globe, we must not lower our torch – we must raise it higher.  Our national values demand it, and our national interest requires it.  As we reflect upon the fate of refugees across the world, we must reclaim our history as a refuge for the persecuted.  Today – and every day – I stand with refugees.

Over the past five years, the world has witnessed millions of Syrians desperately fleeing the terror inflicted by ISIS and Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.  Hundreds of thousands have died and more than half of Syria’s 23 million people have been forced from their homes.  The vast majority of these are women and children.  As a humanitarian leader among nations, the United States must play a significant role in efforts to resettle those displaced by this devastating conflict.

While we must do more for Syria and the surrounding countries, we must not turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis growing even closer to home.  In the Northern Triangle of Central America, ruthless armed criminal organizations in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala brutalize women and children with impunity.  El Salvador and Guatemala have the highest child murder rates in the world – higher even than the child murder rates in the once-active war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.  These three Central American countries also account for some of the highest rates of female homicides worldwide. This pandemic of gang violence in the Northern Triangle has forced thousands of mothers and children to flee and seek refuge wherever they can find it.  I remain deeply troubled by the administration’s continuing immigration raids directed at these vulnerable women and children.  We must do everything we can to ensure that these individuals receive meaningful due process before they are sent back to the chaos and violence from which they fled.

In the face of such staggering suffering, we must live up to our long tradition of being a safe and welcoming haven for those fleeing persecution.  Since the passage of the landmark Refugee Act of 1980, the people and communities of the United States have opened their arms to more than 2.5 million refugees.  America is the great country that it is because of the contributions of refugees, including the likes of Albert Einstein and Madeleine Albright.

I am especially proud that Vermont has welcomed nearly 8,000 refugees from more than a dozen war-torn countries.  These refugees have enriched our communities and are making important contributions to our state.  They have become college-educated citizens, small business owners, nurses, and soccer coaches.  Recently, Mayor Christopher Louras and members of the Rutland community announced plans to resettle 100 Syrian refugees.  I applaud their decision, which should serve as an example to other communities in Vermont and across the country.  I am confident that Vermont will prove to be a welcoming home for all of these families.     

And we must do more.  Last year, the United States announced a very modest plan to resettle 10,000 refugees.  To date, however, we have admitted only a fraction of that number.  Despite recent attempts to foment our fears, we must not forget that refugees continue to be the most stringently vetted travelers to the United States.  And we must remember that ISIS is our enemy. The suffering Syrian people fleeing ISIS are not.

Months ago, the heartbreaking image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a beach stirred the conscience of the international community.  The image was forever seared in my mind, laying bare the human cost of the Syrian crisis.  In the United States, there were passionate calls for our country to live up to its humanitarian legacy.  Amid today’s hateful rhetoric against refugees, we must once again conjure up that image of Aylan.  We must reaffirm our commitment to those risking their lives to flee persecution.  Now, more than ever, the world needs the United States to lead.

Soon, I will reintroduce the Refugee Protection Act of 2016.  Our bicameral bill would make important strides in bolstering and updating our Nation’s laws to address the unprecedented refugee crisis we face today, honoring our rich history as a refuge for the persecuted.  In this dark chapter of human history, there are dangerous voices urging us to lower our torch.  Let the world see that the United States chose, instead, to hold its torch even higher.    

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