Terrorist attacks have a way of bringing out the very best in us — but also the worst. We’ve seen the high-water mark of human empathy, as people all over the world rally in support of the victims of the unspeakable violence committed in Paris on Friday night. Now, however, we’re also seeing the stark limits of compassion, as governors across the United States — including our own governor, Charlie Baker — have announced that Syrian refugees are no longer welcome in their states.
“I would say no as of right now,” Baker told reporters at a State House event Monday. “No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria. . . . I think at this point in time we’d have to be very cautious about accepting folks without knowing a lot more about what the federal government’s plan looks like and how it’s going to be actually implemented and executed.”
While security concerns are reasonable in the wake of a terrorist attack, this knee-jerk reaction is not.
Refugees entering the United States already undergo security checks so rigorous that they take an average of two years to complete, according to Eskinder Negash, senior vice president for the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. The interagency screening process includes a security clearance by the Department of Homeland Security, a medical and a name check, along with 10 additional steps. Refugees from Syria undergo yet another layer of screening. Unlike European countries, who have watched hundreds of thousands of migrants cross their borders on foot, Americans carefully choose which refugees are resettled inside the United States.
“Refugees are probably the most vetted people to come to this country,” Negash said.
The US government has resettled a total 1,809 Syrian nationals this year, nearly all of whom applied before the war even began. The State Department says it is still committed to resettling at least 10,000 additional refugees in 2016.
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees are innocent children and parents who’ve fled a homeland that has suffered a conflict far more deadly than the attacks Paris endured Friday night. An estimated 200,000 people have died in Syria since the war began four years ago.
For that reason alone, it’s regrettable that Massachusetts is being added to the list of states that have announced their refusal to accept Syrian refugees. (Those states — Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Louisiana, and Texas — all happen to be led by Republican governors.)
These announcements should be viewed with skepticism: Refugee resettlement is a federal issue, and it’s unclear what mechanisms a governor could use to keep out a Syrian family that has been cleared to enter the United States.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued an executive order Monday to prevent Syrian refugees from being resettled in Louisiana, claiming that the state constitution gives him extra powers to protect citizens during times of emergency.
While this tough talk might be politically popular, it’s unclear that his order amounts to any more than grandstanding.
But at least Jindal’s statement applied to all Syrian refugees. Other Republican presidential candidates over the weekend suggested that the ban apply only to Muslims.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, told reporters on the campaign trail that Muslim refugees should be screened out, but Christians should be allowed in, since “there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush argued on CNN’s “State of the Union” that assistance to refugees from the Middle East should focus on “Christians that are being slaughtered.”
President Obama called the idea of denying refugee status on the basis of religion “shameful.”
“We don’t have religious tests to our compassion,” Obama said. Our inclusive values are part of what separates us from the Islamic State. Obama has not always been right about Syria, but he’s right about this.