States of Fear

(Photo: Lee Royal/flickr/cc)

States of Fear

Fear is toxic to a democracy. Fear divides. Fear overreacts. Fear discriminates.

It's a lesson we've learned throughout our history, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the post-9/11 Patriot Act. And now in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, we're relearning that lesson again as some of our leaders put forth proposals that would undermine our commitment to a free, pluralistic, compassionate, and open society.

Currently 31 governors are on record opposing resettling any Syrian refugees in their states. These efforts to subvert federal policy would be unconstitutional. Only the federal government has the authority to determine who is allowed to enter the country -- the states do not. And once immigrants are admitted, the states cannot restrict them from settling wherever they choose.

The governors say they worry that terrorists may hide among those who are fleeing the Islamic State and the Assad regime. This is a good argument for a rigorous and multi-layered screening process -- but we already have one. The current U.S. refugee screening system includes background checks by multiple agencies, biometric tests, medical screenings, and in-person interviews with Department of Homeland Security officials.

But that didn't stop the House of Representatives on Thursday from passing a bill that would bring resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to a grinding halt by adding additional layers of bureaucracy to an already rigorous process. By singling out Syrian and Iraqi refugees, the bill also shamefully discriminates against them based on their national origin, nationality, and religion. If the Senate follows suit and passes the bill, President Obama should veto this callous piece of legislation that will only further fan the flames of Islamophobia inside and outside the country.

Let's remember, too, that most of the Paris attackers were European citizens, and they would not have had to claim to be refugees in order to enter the United States. It makes no sense to close American borders to Syrian and Iraqi refugees -- to deny sanctuary to some of the world's most vulnerable -- because a tiny number of Europeans committed a terrorist attack.

Our country has a long history of sheltering the persecuted. Many of the colonies that eventually became the United States were founded by people who were fleeing religious persecution in Europe. In the late 1970s, we gave refuge to Vietnamese people who fled war in Southeast Asia. In 1980s, we gave refuge to thousands of Cubans who arrived in the United States as part of the Mariel boatlift. In the late 1990s, we gave refuge to those fleeing the Kosovo war. These refugees, and their children, have become Americans. On the whole, this is a history we should be proud of.

Moreover, refugees enrich our society. Our country is stronger because of the energy and talent that millions of refugees have contributed to it. The suggestion that we should deny sanctuary to those who are fleeing persecution loses sight of this.

Current proposals to close our doors to refugees are connected to a deeper undercurrent of prejudice. Some political leaders have called for blanket surveillance of American Muslims, with presidential candidate Donald Trump even going as far as to suggest that American Muslims should be required to carry special cards identifying themselves as Muslims. Trump has also called for renewing government surveillance of mosques inside the United States and has suggested that mosques might be shut down altogether. All of this would be unconstitutional as well as stigmatizing, divisive, and unfair.

And though there's never a time for such irresponsible and inaccurate rhetoric, it is particularly dangerous now. On Monday, the FBI released its 2014 report on hate crimes, which found that the number of incidents fell in every victim group except one: Muslims. Calls for discriminatory surveillance and religious profiling will only increase the vulnerability of our American Muslim neighbors and friends. We should not help ISIS drive a wedge between Muslims in the West and the democratic societies they call home. Many first-generation American Muslims, it should be noted, came to America precisely because of the freedoms that some politicians now want to curtail. And Muslims have been part of this nation's fabric since its founding.

It isn't difficult to stand for freedom, compassion, and tolerance in times of relative peace and security. These basic tenets of the American civic faith aren't tested until times like these. But we don't have to give in to hate and fear. We don't have to compromise our beliefs in freedom and equality. Principle can defeat prejudice if we don't lose sight of what matters most: protecting the very values and rights that make us Americans, especially in the most trying of times.

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