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Refugees are not the enemy

Here's the best thing that can be said of Maryland's governor after he announced his opposition to resettling Syrian refugees in the state: At least he didn't employ the kind of political showmanship that some of his fellow Republican governors have exercised. But it's still an embarrassment, signaling an unconditional retreat from American values and a move that may do more to harm the nation's fight against ISIS than it does to keep Marylanders secure.

Gov. Larry Hogan should know better — and, at first, it looked like perhaps he did. When initially confronted with the question of Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks, he announced he needed time to make a "reasoned and careful decision." One day later, he was on the fear-and-loathing bandwagon, releasing a statement that implied the U.S. screening of refugees was no more involved than signing up for a Costco membership and that governors had the power to set immigration policy which, of course, they don't.

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For the record, this is what's involved (and Mr. Hogan can find it at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security website): Refugees are more closely scrutinized than any other category of traveler. They are fingerprinted and their backgrounds checked, and they are interviewed by specially trained DHS officers. Syrian refugees get an "enhanced classified screening," and the whole process from start to finish takes at least a year and averages 18-to-24 months. The vetting involves not only DHS but the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of State and the Department of Defense.

Perhaps there are terrorists willing to wait two years, but why would they choose such a high-risk, low-reward strategy? Most refugee applicants are rejected. It would be far easier to enter the country on a tourist visa. Millions of people from around the world do that every year with far less scrutiny. As for that forged Syrian passport found on one of the terrorists responsible for last week's attacks in Paris, that's an oddity at best. The attackers identified so far came from France and Belgium, not Syria. Shall we post state troopers on I-95 at the Delaware state line or at BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport to block entry to anyone from France and Belgium? At least that would make more sense. Not a single 9/11 hijacker entered the U.S. as a refugee; they came on tourist and business visas. If the forged passport had been a U.S. passport, would we all have to self-deport?

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What makes this not only foolish but profoundly sad is that refugees are the victims of terrorists. They are survivors of torture and violence. Few are able-bodied young men; most are women and children. Maryland has accepted such refugees in the past — proudly — and we should not stop now. It is morally wrong to demonize the innocent, and there are limits to how many more refugees Syria's neighboring countries can handle under the circumstances. The U.S. has an important role to play, as do other Western nations. Of course, refugees should be carefully screened, but given the elaborate process already in place, security concerns would appear to be mostly a smoke screen for the raw racism and xenophobia behind them.

President Barack Obama had it right when he pointed out that the anti-refugee rhetoric coming from the governors and others this week could prove a useful recruitment tool for ISIS and its ilk. The venom, the overreaction, the hatred and fear, this is exactly what terrorists crave from their victims. And it's surely not helpful when some politicians suggest that perhaps the U.S. could accept only Christian refugees. That's right, a religious test! Pass it and you get help, fail and you are left in the hands of the torturers. Is this the United States of America or a Christian version of a caliphate? It is enough to make one weep.

Perhaps Mr. Hogan needs to take a few minutes and read up on the plight of refugees in Maryland. As it happens, The Sun's Liz Bowie has assembled a useful briefing in her "Unsettled Journeys" project, a chronicle of life at Baltimore's Patterson High School where immigrants make up one-third of the student body, including Narmin Al Eethawi, a 19-year-old refugee from Iraq who came here by way of — you guessed it — Syria. These are not youngsters to be feared, a door slammed in their faces, they are new Americans to be embraced and comforted, the latest in a long (and legal) tradition of immigration.

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