As a former refugee, the response to the Syrian refugee crisis from government officials has been disheartening. With more than 4 million refugees, the U.S.’ commitment to admit merely 10,000 refugees is pitiful. As the richest and most powerful nation in the world, it is our duty to help others that are less fortunate. Refugees are among the most vulnerable populations in the world, especially those that are Muslim because of the ongoing distrust, and outright hatred of Muslims.
My parents lived for fifteen years in a refugee camp, and I for nearly two. My earliest memory, however, is that of attending school in the United States. That my parents managed to get resettled to the U.S. is a blessing because I had the opportunity to grow up in a place where I would have the chance to be safe.
My father often told me stories of his early days in the refugee camps. He had fled Laos with his mother and siblings when he was barely eleven. Their destination was Thailand. He always talked about how poor the conditions were because he would go to sleep at night on a patch of dirt, and in the morning there would be a pile human excrement next to his head. There were no toilets, people did their business in the middle of the night for privacy because they were not allowed to leave the encampment. Even though conditions in the refugee camps were terrible, they were still better than back where they had come from. There, my father had suffered through constant bombings, and threats to their lives. He had been shot once, but he had also been lucky because the bullet had entered through his cheek and left without killing him.
On their journey to the refugee camps, as they fled soldiers in the forests, they encountered many dangers. Soldiers lurked everywhere, there was no food or water, no medical supplies. People carried only what they needed. This was a harrowing journey that included drugging babies with opiates to keep them quiet, or if they could not keep the babies quiet, the babies would be killed, either by the parents, or the soldiers when they were inevitably found. People were fleeing for their lives. They left their home, their country, and all their loved ones behind. The overwhelming majority of refugees are escaping terror and danger.
After the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015, the United States’ response to the Syrian refugee crisis took an appalling, and devastating turn: House Republicans passed a bill making it harder for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to enter the United States. The bill requires that the FBI director, the director of national intelligence, and the secretary of homeland security certify that individual refugees were not a threat before they are allowed into the United States.
Getting into the U.S. through the refugee program would be the most difficult way for any person to enter the U.S. Tourists can get visas through a process that can take a few days to a few months. More troubling, however, citizens of some European countries, such as France and Belgium, can enter the U.S. without even applying for a visa. They simply undergo screening from U.S. customs officials once they arrive in the U.S. The significance of this possibility lies in the fact that some of the Paris attackers were citizens of the exempt European countries and could have entered the U.S. even with the customs screening.
The process for a refugee to be admitted into the United States already takes anywhere between 18 to 24 months. This process is overseen by the United Nations’ refugee arm. After the UN vets refugees, individual countries begin their own vetting process. This process includes multiple interviews, background checks, and extensive cross-referencing of refugee’s stories. Because of the extremely high numbers of refugees (more than 4 million Syrian refugees exist), only the most vulnerable are considered for resettlement to other countries. This population includes torture victims, female heads of household, people with serious medical conditions and other especially vulnerable groups. After refugees have undergone the UN’s process, they are then put through additional screening by their resettlement country. The U.S. conducts additional interviews, medical evaluations, and security screenings, and for Syrian refugees specifically, they have to go through an additional process with the U.S. Intelligence agency.
Despite all of these safeguards, Republicans (and some Democrats) voted to make the process even harder. In balancing between the humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees and national security concerns, these political leaders chose to close their eyes to the very real crisis that these refugees face. In addition, many state governors have declared that they will not allow any Syrian refugees in their state. Thirty-one such governors have made such statements despite not actually having authority to keep refugees out of their state.
President Obama has pledged to take 10,000 refugees in the coming year. Only 2,174 Syrian refugees have been resettled to the U.S. since 2012. Some reactions to President Obama’s announcement seemed to come straight from history. In a statement reminiscent of Japanese internment during WWII, Tennessee legislator Glen Casada called the National Guard to “round up” all Syrian refugees in the state and remove them. Casada has also endorsed putting Syrian refugees under surveillance.
Casada’s response may have been extreme, but its sentiment has been echoed in other states. Rhode Island State Senator Elaine Morgan stated that “[a] refugee camp to keep [the refugees] segregated from our [populace],” should be created. Presidential candidate Donald Trump said he would create a database of Muslims. He also said he would require Muslims to carry special identification cards that show they are Muslim. Roanoke, Virginia Mayor David Bowers invoked mass internment in response to the “threat” from Syrian refugees.
It would be easy to think, “We all know internment was wrong,” but the problem is that it was not illegal. In Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court permitted the internment of people of Japanese descent. In a 6-3 decision, the Court declared that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Korematsu’s rights. Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Korematsu is considered to belong to the class of cases described as the anti-canon of American constitutional thought, among these cases are Dred Scott v. Sanford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Buck v. Bell, it has never been overturned. Therefore, Korematsu is still good law, and internment of a group of people based on race or ethnicity is still a possibility for the federal government.
The Supreme Court said, in Korematsu, that “when, under conditions of modern warfare, our shores are threatened by hostile forces, the power to protect must be commensurate with the threatened danger.” Through this reasoning, the Supreme Court allowed “[c]ompulsory exclusion of large groups of citizens from their homes” even though it was “inconsistent with our basic governmental institutions.”
The decision in Korematsu is a black stain upon the conscience of America. We should not let that mistake be repeated with Syrian refugees. The U.S. has admitted 784,395 refugees since 9/11, and of those, three have been arrested on terrorism charges. Two were not planning attacks on American soil and the plans of the third were barely credible. In times of war we allow the government to do many things in the name of protecting our freedom. Many times, we have allowed our fear to drive us to do horrible things to others, such as the internment of Japanese Americans, or indefinite detention of people at Guantanamo. As a nation, we need to discard this mantle, and stand for something better.
In the U.S., it is common for people to say, “Vote with your feet.” If you do not like how something is done, move to a place where you share their values. Syrian refugees have done just that. They undertook a perilous journey to escape ISIS, and here we are, denying them the opportunity to denounce exactly that which we denounce.
To decline to help Syrian refugees would be a shame. To be sure, fears regarding who we are letting in exist, and should be addressed, but this should not be a reason we decline to help people who are literally running for their lives. The revival of old rhetoric that led to the internment of Japanese Americans is shameful and un-American. Raising awareness of this dangerous rhetoric is essential in fighting against it. The U.S. should take a stand and open its arms to help Syrian refugees.