I know that this article is going to anger a lot of conservatives. I know that I will likely be called a faux-conservative, or that this article would be a better suited on The Progressive. Nevertheless, I feel that I must break with most Republicans regarding the issue of Syrian refugees and potential terrorist attacks.
In the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last week, many Republicans (and even some Democrats) have made some truly insulting and mind-blowing comments about Middle Eastern refugees and Muslims as a whole. For example, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush implied that we should only admit Christian refugees from Syria, while Cruz claimed it was “lunacy” to allow Muslim refugees into the country. Over 30 governors have now banned Syrian refugees from entering their states citing “security risks.” Governor Christie went as far as to reject even “orphans under the age of five” under the guise of preventing another 9/11. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal ordered state police to track Syrian refugees who had entered his state. One Representative went as far as to suggest that Syrian refugees are “coming to the U.S. for a paid vacation.”
However, the worst offenders have unquestionably been the leader atop the GOP 2016 Presidential polls, and I cannot help but wonder whether Donald Trump truly believes some of the things he says. When questioned, Trump has suggested that he would approve the use of a database to track Muslims. He has suggested the issuance of a special Muslim ID as a prevention tool to screen against terrorists attacks. Most recently, Trump had the audacity to suggest that New Jersey Muslims “cheered” when the Twin Towers fell. This last statement would almost be laughable were it not so blatantly insulting and factually vacant. Mr. Trump, you hypocritically skewer others for hiding around political correctness, while you wield your “tell it like it is” persona to incorrectly insult other Americans.
But I digress and return to my original point. The GOP has simply gone too far in perpetuating this anti-Islamic, anti-refugee rhetoric that has permeated the national debate since the Paris attack. The GOP has allowed xenophobia, emotions, and unfounded fears to dictate an isolation policy which flies in the face of everything that America stands for.
First, both the use of inflammatory rhetoric and the exclusion of Syrian refugees runs contrary to our history and our beliefs. It is impossible to ignore the irony of the fact that the first western colony in the continental United States, Plymouth colony, was established as a safe haven for religious refugees. By 1776, the United States was one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, including large populations of religious “minorities” such as Quakers and Catholics. This exact demographic makeup was one of the primary reasons that religious freedom was included in the first amendment on the Bill of Rights.
Yet many of the policies and the rhetoric that have emerged in the last week lose sight of the historical context of refugees and religion in America. It is impossible for any individual to call themselves a “Constitutional Conservative” or even a decent human being when that some advocate for different treatment of individuals based solely on religion.
Again, Donald Trump is the worst offender of this type in many ways. The idea that a “free” country would construct a database on all members of a certain religion is fortunately as constitutionally dubious as it intuitively seems. Proponents might claim that it is prudent to collect data on potential suspects; however, it is blatant discrimination to label all of a certain religion as potential suspects before they have done anything to warrant any additional scrutiny. In the same way, the creation of a special Muslim ID has the same effect: it labels all those of a certain religion as an underclass who are not welcome in our nation. Proponents of such policies apparently believe in selective application of the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equality before the law to all citizens of the United States.
Some have tried to compare such suggestions to those of the Third Reich in Germany, but I believe the more apt comparisons are the internment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Red Scare/McCarthyism following World War II. In both cases, constitutional protections of due process and equality under the law were waived in a Machiavellian invocation of “national security needs.” Thousands, if not millions of Americans were subject to enhanced scrutiny and even saw their lives ruined through actions such as internment or blacklisting. And even those who avoided such fates faced a stigma of being cast as an underclass citizen, which was explicitly approved by the U.S. government. In the years since these events, they have become classic case studies of the results of when fear overrides principles and rational judgements, and we have collectively vowed never to make the same mistakes again.
And yet, we find that many of our leaders are advocating for policies which violate many of the same principles that we swore never to violate again. Now, I grant you that even Mr. Trump’s outrageous proposals go as far as the events that unfolded in each case. However, we cannot even edge slightly down this route and yet simultaneously maintain our clear conscience as a nation of freedom and equality. If you admit Christian refugees instead of Muslims, if you shut down mosques that you believe to be radical, you are effectively criminalizing those of a certain faith, just as communists were criminalized during the Red Scare.
For full disclosure, most Republicans have publically distanced themselves from such actions which would constitute flashbacks to Joe McCarthy. However, their position on cutting off all Syrian refugee resettlement is equally problematic.
First, it’s important to separate refugees from perspective immigrants. According to the U.N. definition, a refugee is someone who:
…owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.
This is far different from an immigrant, who simply seeks to move to another country for a bevy of possible reasons. A refugee literally faces persecution, imprisonment, or in the case of Syria right now, death by remaining in their native land.
In my view, refugee policy differs from immigration because of the repercussions on others and the implications of inaction. With immigration, each country should determine its policy selfishly, based on the rules which will maximize the well-being of the citizens already living in that country. This is, after all, the responsibility of a sovereign state. However, a refugee situation is not simply a matter of policy but a humanitarian issue. Acting selfishly and closing off one’s borders entirely is the same as being a bystander to ethnic cleansing, persecution, or whatever events may be going on in the world. Now, I am not suggesting that a country has to be completely selfless and let all refugees in, but by our common human connection, it is required to do at least something for those most in need.
And what of the situation in Syria? At present, there are approximately 12 million people in Syria who have been displaced from their homes due to factors such as violence and collapsed infrastructure. Many families face basic problems of getting access to food and clean water. About 2-3 million children have missed school and fallen victim to exploitation at the hands of various perpetrators.
As the leader of the free world, is it not our duty to help these victims at least a little? Is it so ridiculous to provide sanctuary for a tiny fraction of those that have been displaced by the ongoing civil war? No matter whom you blame, don’t we have an extra responsibility to help with this situation given that our involvement in the Middle East gave rise to this conflict and ISIS itself? We have always prided ourselves on being a leader of refugee resettlement, and of the 4 million seeking asylum, we have accepted less than 1,000.
“But what if these refugees are terrorists, or members of ISIS,” proponents often ask. While it may be a natural concern, this hypothetical line of thought does not conform with reality. The Syrian refugees are not members of ISIS–they are families who have been displaced by violence, or even orphans whose families have been killed by the ethnic cleansing sweeping the country side. All that these people want to do is escape the violence and come to a country where they live without fear of war. I’m sorry if this sounds like an emotional appeal, but the reality for these individuals is dismal.
It simply does not make sense for any terrorists to attempt to enter the country via the refugee process, which is extensive and has several requirements. For example, all refugees must be screened and interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security to confirm their background and documentation. While the attorney general has admitted that the screening process is not perfect, refugees still face greater scrutiny than ordinary immigrants and travelers due to the protected status of being a refugee. Moreover, the extensive demand for asylum from Syrian families has created an extensive waiting list to be granted refugee status in any country, especially the U.S. With over 4 million refugees and the U.S. accepting less than 1,000, why would ISIS even attempt to send agents to the U.S. through the refugee process? They would wait years without any guarantee that they would even make it here.
In fact, Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed far greater concern with the visa program than refugee screening. Mr. Burr stated that, “were I in Europe already and I wanted to go to the United States and I’m not on a watch list or a no-fly list and I wanted to get there, the likelihood is I’d use the visa waiver program before I would try to pawn myself off as a refugee and enter under false documents.” For this reason, Democratic Intelligence Committee Senator Diane Feinstein further suggested that the visa program needed to be reexamined for security, not the refugee process.
While security concerns obviously need to be fully vetted, this should not be a justification for denying refugee status to Syrian seeking to enter this country. The refugee program stipulates that these individuals immediately find work upon arrival and is designed for families to be able to enter the country. Cutting off Syrian refugees does not improve our security in the least, but only hurts those who desperately need our help.
With that being said, I believe that there is a balance when it comes to helping refugees from anywhere in the world. While a country should not be selfish in a humanitarian situation, it must simultaneously ensure that it is protecting itself and providing for its citizens.
For one, the refugee process must be regulated, and must not turn into a degenerated immigration process like we have on the southern border. Each country should be able to fully investigate and track all prospective refugees to confirm that those who want to come here truly are refugees, and not others looking to game the immigration system. Secondly, the number of refugees must be limited in such a manner that it does not strain the social resources of the country and allows the refugees to assimilate into the country’s culture. However, considering the vast resources of the United States, we are capable of supporting a much larger refugee population than we are at present.
At the end of the day, what I fear most is that the rhetoric and attitude of the GOP is allowing the terrorists to win. Terrorists win not in the acts of violence themselves but in the reaction. They win when a free country turns on a segment of a population and labels them as underclass citizens. They win when a country allows itself to be consumed by fear and refuses to be the beacon of freedom and hope that it espouses.
I refuse to stand for helping radical Islamic terrorists win this conflict. I will not allow my fear to prevent me from defending the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all Americans. I will not curl up into a little ball hoping that Muslims do not come near just because of the acts of less-than-human creatures.
We will win this war. And we will win it by remaining true to ourselves, by remaining the beacon of freedom that took down the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany. There may be bumps along the road, but at the end of the day, the terrorists can never kill our values or what it means to be an American.
This article presents the views of author Mike McVea, not necessarily those of the Georgetown University College Republicans or GUCR Board. This piece belongs solely to Mr. McVea and cannot be reproduced in any way without his express consent. For more GUCR updates, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.