The dilemma of whether or not to allow Syrian refugees to receive asylum in the United States is indeed a moral one.
In 1939, shortly before the start of World War II, nearly 1,000 European Jews and others boarded a passenger ship named the St. Louis in order to flee persecution by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen. The plan was to land in Cuba, which at the time was accepting refugees, and then await their visa quota number to enter the United States. However, upon arrival in Cuba, the Cuban government refused to allow most of the refugees to land. The refugees then appealed to President Franklin Roosevelt (D) and the United States government for asylum, but Congress would not provide special legislation and the president would not write an executive order allowing entry. Desperate and fearful, the refugees appealed to President Roosevelt, but he never replied. Ultimately, France, Belgium, Great Britain, and the Netherlands each accepted 200-300 refugees from the St. Louis. 254 of the refugees aboard the St. Louis were killed during World War II.
Fast forward to 2015 and the war in Syria that has caused hundreds of thousands of innocent people – mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers – to fear for their lives and flee persecution. But for the grace of God, there go I. These people were harming no one and were simply living their lives, just as the Jews in Germany and other countries in Europe were peacefully living theirs before the rise of Hitler and his anti-semitic fascist genocidal evil led to the murder of more than 6 million innocent people. What ISIS is doing is really no different. In many cases they are singling out Christians and then torturing, raping, and killing them in the most brutal and inhumane manner. The refugees are people fleeing that hell on earth.
Regarding the debate about refugees entering the U.S., on Sunday, November 15, 2015, presidential candidate and former Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, said on Meet the Press: “The great majority of refugees need to be safely kept in Syria. Which means the safe zones need to be serious. We need to build a coalition that can fight both Assad and ISIS and give people safe haven. I do think we have a responsibility to help with refugees after proper screening. And I think our focus ought to be on the Christians who have no place in Syria anymore. They’re being beheaded, they’re being executed by both sides. And I think we have a responsibility to help. But ultimately, the best way to deal with refugees is to have a strategy to take out ISIS and Assad and act on that strategy immediately.”
While in Turkey for the G20 Summit, President Obama held a press conference where he showed distemper and sadly politicized the issue while misquoting Governor Bush. Governor Bush said the focus should be on Christians, which is akin to saying during World War II a focus would need to be on Jews. Mr. Bush did not say we should allow only Christian refugees into the country, he merely addressed the sad fact that Christians are being persecuted, which is an undeniable fact. The president spoke in a demeaning, political, and immature manner and I found it distasteful, in part because it showed a lack of leadership and unity, especially with someone who is agreeing that we need to open our hearts to people fleeing persecution. President Obama said that there is no religious test, and there isn’t, but he might want to read the definition of a refugee: An individual who is outside his or her country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion who is unable to, or owing to such a fear, unwilling to avail him- or herself of the protection of that country. The definition is sometimes expanded to include people fleeing war or other armed conflict.
Many refugees from Syria are Christians fleeing persecution based on their religion and they live in a country that is both unwilling and unable to protect them. It can’t get any more clear than that and the president was wrong to state that anyone said there should be a religious test. There is no religious test, but it is also true that Christians are in special danger and deserve a focus. Not exclusivity, but a focus.
Mary and Joseph took their infant son, Jesus, and fled the persecution of Herod. Jesus was therefore a refugee. The descendants of the people of Israel had been turned into slaves in Egypt. God called upon Moses to lead the Israelite people out of that oppression. They were refugees, just as Moses the infant was.
Sometimes it is uncomfortable or difficult to be a Christian and this moral dilemma of whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into the U.S. is such a challenge, but an appeal to our better selves says the answer is yes. Can we turn our backs on people fleeing persecution and say there is no room at the inn? Should we open our hearts and help them in every way possible?
Years ago I heard a sermon by a priest who asked an interesting question: If you were arrested and accused of being a Christian, would they have enough evidence to convict you? In Syria and other countries in the Middle East, Christians are being murdered and raped because there was enough evidence to convict them of simply being Christians. When we say no to Christians and others fleeing that persecution, is there enough evidence to convict us of being Christians?
Being warm, fuzzy, and naive gets people killed, and I know that. Keep in mind that we also need to be smart about this and understand exactly what allowing 10,000 refugees into the U.S. means. Virtually no refugee permitted entry to the US will ever return to Syria. Refugees are offered support to help them get settled, including support in finding a home, a job, placing children in schools as quickly as possible, etc. They will get social security numbers and after one year will be provided permanent legal status and then after 5 years they can become citizens and vote. Once a green card is provided our legal immigration system will, as a priority, permit the entry of additional family members. So, if one is concerned about refugees from Syria then it is not a huge stretch to look down the line and see the greater concern. If we see a refugee woman with small children and her identity checks out and no problems are noticed, she will be permitted entry. Her husband, brother, or father would then be permitted entry through the legal immigration process of family reunification. Will such a person be vetted properly? I’d like to think so, but who can say for sure? So, it is important to realize that for every refugee permitted entry, more people from Syria will follow in the not too distant future.
The government’s security clearance procedure involves checking the refugee’s name against the FBI’s database of known terrorists and undesirables, as well as the State Department’s database of people who have been denied visas to enter the United States in the past. The Department of Homeland Security is also involved. That’s pretty much it. Common sense says that there is simply no way to know with certainty that a person has terrorist links or will develop them. This isn’t fear mongering because there are cases listed in an article linked below showing this very problem.
So, it would be naive to not address the safety concerns regarding Syrian refugees, especially in light of what happened in Paris last Saturday when we know that at least one of the terrorists entered Belgium as a refugee, and amidst reports of a Syrian operative saying as many as 4,000 covert ISIS gunmen have made it into western countries posing as refugees. Sadly, we have seen first hand what refugees who were or became terrorists can do. The Boston Marathon bombers initially entered the country as refugees. We had warnings about them from Russia but still they got in and set off two bombs near the finish line of the marathon.
A recent 60 Minutes report showed the government’s widespread failure to properly vet both Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning which led to their treasonous activities. The government’s failure to vet Americans, let alone Syrians of whom they know nothing, led to Manning’s release of documents which made some nations more hesitant to share intelligence or work with the U.S. Snowden, also a traitor to his country, revealed secrets of the National Security Agency hacking and encryption techniques, as well as revealing the names of US spies, thereby endangering their lives and harming our national security. If the United States government can’t vet two Americans and provided them with high level security clearance then how can it be trusted to properly vet Syrians of whom they know nothing and say with certainty that no terrorist can slip through? That assurance simply cannot be provided, as has been proven.
So, there we have it, a moral dilemma. A moral dilemma has no easy answer, such as deporting 11 million people which is just silly to even say because it shows simple-mindedness rather than high level critical thinking. My heart and the Christian side of me that asks, “What would Jesus do? says yes, let them in. The other side of me that worries about the safety of our people and the ineffectiveness of our government and its proven inability to properly vet people, makes me think that no, we shouldn’t.
There are sound arguments on both sides of the issue and I don’t think it helps to get angry with people about their opinion, or talk in a defensive, hyperbolic, and condescending manner as was unfortunately the case of our president in Turkey and Indonesia. Good people can have different opinions, and debate is a good and healthy thing. Maybe if we had an open and honest discussion about this and our politicians got out of their corners we could have an intellectual and passionate discussion that leads to how best to help these refugees who do not deserve to be caught up in a political battle. They have been through enough hell and they deserve our help.
There is no easy answer. It helps to have empathy and put yourself in the shoes of a refugee. As for me, I can’t get past the fact that Jesus was a refugee and when I see pictures or videos of what is going on in Syria my heart breaks and I would allow them in. However, before I would start that process I would pause and make sure our procedures that are in place in fact do vet these people and their relatives as deeply as possible. As noted earlier, when you combine the ineffectiveness of the government’s vetting process of Americans with President Obama’s attitude of pushing them through in the face of concerns registered by well-meaning governors, representatives, and senators then I am worried about what could happen. We need to slow down, stop the hurtful rhetoric by so-called leaders including our president, cool off, and work together to solve this dilemma. Yes, with a focus on Christians who will be brutally murdered if they go back, but again, not solely one religion. I would proceed with extreme caution. We do not need to bring in 10,000 people in one week or one month. The vetting process must not only address the individual refugee but his or her extended family as well, and we need to look years down the line with each refugee. I can’t stress enough that this isn’t temporary and that virtually no Syrian refugee will ever return home. Why would they? While the process plays out we can and should provide food, clothing, and other support for refugees wherever they may be.
If we bring in 10,000 refugees as is planned and do nothing to stop the flow then we have not solved the real problem. We also need to go to the source of the refugee crisis and help create so-called safe zones where people can be protected. However, that only works with significant ground troops from the region dedicated to protect them. Otherwise it makes no sense to create a safe zone, because in fact it would not be safe.
I am conflicted and confused but I would allow Syrian refugees in. I don’t know where the number 10,000 came from but we need to help relieve some stress being placed on other countries. We should proceed very slowly and with an extreme abundance of caution.
Another option is to create a refugee camp in a humane manner with shelter, food, clothing, education, protection, etc. and let them stay there temporarily until the crisis in Syria has ended. I know that to some that can sound cruel, but it would be temporary until we had assured vetting or the war in Syria ended and they could safely be taken home. There is precedent. In 1991, nearly 30,000 refugees from Haiti were kept in sort of tent city on Guantanamo Bay until a coup was reversed and 20,000 were sent home, while 10,000 were granted entry to the United States. We may need to do something similar with the Syrian refugees. The problem is the conflict in Syria is probably never going to end, so realistically the Syrian refugees are never going home.
I have to say this is very difficult and what governors such as John Kasich are doing is coming down on the side of safety, which is their job and they should not be criticized or condemned for doing their job. It’s also the job of the President, who as Commander in Chief, has a primary role of protecting the people of our country. It would be nice if they would set politics aside and work together, but that’s as likely as the refugee crisis ending soon.
What needs to happen is this war in Syria needs to end, and it needs to end quickly. The Paris tragedy, the bombing of a Russian plane, and the refugee crisis are enough tragedies to unite the world in what may rapidly spiral into a de facto World War III. I am admittedly too soft on these issues, but what needs to happen is the entire world needs to unite and wipe this cancer called ISIS off the planet. A massive show of power and world wide sharing of intelligence is necessary. Warrantless searches should be approved, pilots need to be given on the spot approval to take out targets, and a Sunni and Shia led ground force along with coalition ground and air forces must wipe out both ISIS and Assad.
I don’t know much, but I do know this – whatever we are doing now is not working.
Here’s a story about the first Syrian refugee family placed in Cincinnati with the help of Catholic Charities. This article shows a peaceful and grateful family:
The following article shows a list of over 20 examples of immigrants, some of whom entered the country as refugees, who either committed acts of terror or attempted to aid or commit acts of terror: http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2015/11/26_terror_plots_in_us_tied_to.html
These articles show the dilemma faced by leaders who need to make the tough decisions Examples of terrorists entering through the refugee process, including 8 men arrested in Turkey today, cannot be ignored, but neither can we ignore people in need. My opinion is that we need to show our Christian souls and help by allowing in some Syrian refugees, just as we do with people from all over the world. I don’t have the answer and I’m not suggesting I’m right. I respect other views and I wish President Obama would do the same. Only by working together will we solve the complex moral dilemmas of our time.
Given that I started this blog with an example of Jewish refugees, I thought it might be good to end with a poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller that is etched on the wall of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. for your consideration:
First They Came
Pastor Martin Niemoller
First they came for the Communists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.
There but for the grace of God go I.