One morning last month, our group from the Association of Refugee Service Professionals went to a railway station in Vienna, Austria, where hundreds of asylum-seekers from Syria were huddled in the back, trying to get out of the rain and cold. Our group, in Europe to look at refugee processing, joined a cadre of local volunteers providing food and clothes to these people waiting to register and be screened for refugee resettlement in the European Union.
I met an asylum-seeker there, an English speaker, accompanied by his very pregnant wife and her elderly mother. He explained how he had been a computer programmer and fashion designer in Syria when ISIS overran their neighborhood and began terrorizing and killing people. Then Bashar al-Assad’s government began dropping barrel bombs on the neighborhood, killing many more. His family fled and had been on the road four weeks, seeking asylum in Europe. They hoped to catch a train to Germany and rebuild their lives there. His goal was to find a safe place before the snows came and their baby was born.
After the tragic ISIS attacks in Paris, Gov. Pat McCrory announced his plans to prevent Syrian refugees from coming to North Carolina. He said that safety is primary, and that he doesn’t know how good the Department of Homeland Security is in screening applicants. Obviously, he doesn’t know. DHS has approximately 13 state of the art screening steps for refugee applicants. It takes over a year to complete a refugee security clearance. However, refugee placement is federal law, not state.
The governor declared elsewhere recently that we are a nation of laws, and these laws are primary. If he and other like-minded governors truly want to (illegally) try to prevent Syrian refugees or others from coming into our states, they will need to build walls around these states so no one can enter from adjacent border states without a security clearance.
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We are a nation of immigrants built upon the strength of newcomers seeking freedom and opportunity. However, prior to World War II, we turned away boatloads of Jewish refugees from Europe who were fleeing the Nazis. During World War II, we put Japanese-Americans into internment camps with no due process. However, after World War II we were instrumental in establishing a United Nations with a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asserting that everyone had a right to a homeland. Signatory nations pledged to uphold those principles.
In 1965 we passed a new immigration act that moved us away from our Eurocentric bias and opened our country to others who had refugee status or could contribute to our country’s growth. After the Vietnam War we developed a sophisticated professional refugee resettlement program, the best in the world. This is part of our nation’s pledge to freedom, our claim to American exceptionalism, our key to economic growth.
North Carolina has had a model U.S. refugee program, according to the federal government. That is based not just on numbers, though N.C. typically is about 10th in number of refugees resettled any given year, with 3,529 in 2014, a typical year. However, North Carolina is a model in its community support, primarily faith communities volunteering and welcoming newcomers, helping with the rent until they become self-sufficient. They included Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and other smaller faith groups from 55 countries. These refugees all have a well-founded fear of persecution, usually war-related, and they have passed the U.S. screening process.
Now, we have an international crisis, Middle East instability and ISIS terrorism. A quarter of a million Syrians have been killed, mostly Muslim. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are providing shelter to over a million Syrian refugees. Europe is potentially absorbing millions more. Yet, some in the U.S. are objecting to plans to accept 10,000 Syrians through the U.S. refugee program.
Some presidential candidates emphasize religious faith in their political campaigns. I think their faiths tell them to welcome the stranger, to care for widows and orphans, to love their neighbor. Do they want to return the Statue of Liberty to France and say it no longer reflects our nation’s values?
Raleigh Bailey of Greensboro is on the national board of directors of the Association of Refugee Service Professionals.