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Portland Press Herald

Why We Must Condemn Politics of Fear in Favor of Welcoming Refugees

As a bill in Congress emerges to block refugees, it's time for lawmakers to make a declaration of conscience.

Liza Moore of Freeport, Maine holds a sign in support of refugees on the town's Main Street. (Photo: Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

A bill is scheduled to come before the U.S. Senate on Wednesday that would effectively block all Iraqi and Syrian refugees from entering the United States, including women and orphans fleeing the worst crimes known to humankind.

The proposal offers an opportunity for Maine’s senators to take a bold and much-needed stand against the fear-mongering that has replaced reasonable debate in Washington.

Doing so would put them in the best tradition of Maine’s senators from an earlier era, as when Margaret Chase Smith delivered her famous Declaration of Conscience on the U.S. Senate floor to denounce the unscrupulous tactics of Joseph McCarthy.

Today, the issue is whether the U.S. will open its borders to desperate refugees who are running for their lives from what were once homes in places like Syria as they are annihilated by civil war and terrorism. We need more declarations of conscience to be issued on the Senate floor.

The Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Yezidi, Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria.

Over 4 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country, and another 10 million remain displaced within the country.

The reality of the situation has been captured on the front page of newspapers around the globe, from the photo of the body of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore to the latest horrifying images of starving Syrian children under siege in the town of Madaya. Those seeking refuge from the U.S. are fleeing the worst of the worst.

The bill’s supporters claim it is all about stopping terrorism from spreading. Never mind the fact that refugees are the most thoroughly vetted group of people who come to the United States.

Measures to improve the vetting of refugees (a process already underway) makes sense. Rejection of everyone, even widows and orphans, is ludicrous and cruel. Caution is understandable, but blanket rejection is unconscionable.

When I listen to these debates, I can’t help but think of the many refugees I have met in Maine who are making important contributions to our communities. For example, I first met El-Fadel Arbab at an art exhibit at one of Portland’s First Friday Art Walks.


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El-Fadel, who fled the Darfur genocide as a 12-year-old child, has committed himself to engaging and enriching the lives of our young people. I have seen him change their lives. These include dozens of art students from Falmouth and Yarmouth high schools who transformed the moving experience of engaging with him into powerful pieces of art.

Similarly, I was moved by the story of the Lewiston High School state Class A championship boys’ soccer team. Eighteen of the 25 champions who play for Lewiston High are refugees. They are from Congo, Somalia and Turkey, and they found a way to work together as a team, accomplish great things and inspire a community, a state and a nation.

The Sisters of Mercy, who just celebrated their 150th anniversary in Maine last year, have long helped refugees in Maine and have joined the call to welcome them.

When I had the honor of representing Maine in Congress, interacting with such community leaders was one of my most enriching and inspiring experiences. They are the ones who Maine’s senators should look to for guidance, information and inspiration.

Proponents of legislation that will stop refugees from coming to the U.S. are relying on one of the oldest cards in the political deck – fear – to prevail.

They are appealing to the worst in us. Sen. Smith appealed to the best in us. And so are the Sisters of Mercy and El-Fadel Arbab.

The truth is we are a better community because of the refugees on that Lewiston soccer team and people like El-Fadel. We are a better nation when we heed the voices of Margaret Chase Smith and the Sisters of Mercy.

In an environment of increasing fear-mongering, Maine is once again in a position to offer the nation a healthy dose of common sense and leadership. Our senators can deliver both by not only voting against this and related measures, but by standing up and speaking out for common decency and common sense to prevail on the question of admitting refugees.

I am proud to stand with the Sisters of Mercy and all of Maine’s voices of tolerance in denouncing the politics of fear. What we need is for Sen. Collins and Sen. King to do the same.

Tom Andrews

Tom Andrews

Tom Andrews, a former Member of Congress from the first Congressional District of Maine, is senior adviser to the human rights group, Fortify Rights. Andrews is the former President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Tom also served as National Director of Win Without War, a coalition of forty-two national membership organizations including the National Council of Churches, the NAACP, the National Organization of Women, the Sierra Club, and MoveOn.  He is also a co-founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

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