Back in June, I wrote a piece positing the merits of establishing a refugee resettlement project aimed primarily at Syrians. The article drew a good number of responses, most of them positive. People in the capital city area — and elsewhere in Montana — want to help refugees, because we have the capacity, the responsibility and the will to do so.
Much has happened since late spring. Things have gone from really bad to terribly worse. Russian jets are striking cities in Syria. The Assad regime continues to drop barrel bombs on helpless civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees are fleeing for their lives, and overrunning boundaries and borders in Europe. The civil war is in its fifth year, and the conflagration surrounding it — ISIS versus almost everybody -- continues unabated. Worldwide, there are more refugees and internally displaced people than at any time since World War II.
A humanitarian effort is underway in Montana, which is the only state save Wyoming where there is no functioning refugee resettlement program. Here in Helena, through WorldMontana, I am engaged in conversations with state agencies, our congressional delegation, various faith-based groups, college faculty, local government and school officials, social service organizations, other interested persons (including state legislators) and some settled refugees from Africa and Latin America. Much the same is happening in Missoula, Bozeman, Butte and Billings. We are jointly in touch with the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Denver, and have received practical information about best practices and required procedures. I foresee a Refugee Resettlement Network sprouting in Montana, where a singular program does not fit the state’s decentralized demographic pattern.
For those of us favoring a program to resettle a modest number of Syrian (and other) refugees, facts are our friends. For example, opposition to Syrian refugees stems in part from fear that allowing any of them into the country increases the probability of a terrorist attack. But in the past 15 years, with more than 750,000 refugees resettled in the U.S., none have been arrested on domestic terrorism charges, and only two Iraqis were charged with aiding and abetting Al Qaeda overseas. Since 2011, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has interviewed 7,014 Syrian refugees; 2,134 have been admitted to the U.S., and none has been arrested or removed on terrorism charges. The Obama administration has called for 10,000 to be admitted in the next year, but the sad fact is there is not yet adequate funding for that number. The Boston bombers were not refugees, and they weren’t from the Middle East; nor were the French-born Paris terrorists. The married couple who murdered Americans in San Bernardino did not come from Syria.
All refugees undergo extensive background checks. There is no more difficult way to get into the U.S. legally than as a refugee applicant. The UNHCR must first make a legal determination of a person’s status. A refugee is not just someone seeking a better, safer life, but is, according to international law, “any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” is outside his or her home country and cannot return safely. The UN agency’s registration process includes in-depth interviews, home country reference checks and biological screenings such as iris scans. Military combatants are weeded out. (Roughly half the Syrian refugees admitted to date have been children; a quarter are adults over 60.) Following this initial vetting, individuals are then referred to U.S. authorities, including the State Department, the FBI, the Department of Defense, Homeland Security and several intelligence agencies. Further facts about the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program are available on the U.S. State Department’s website.
I don’t believe that fear of attack alone explains some viscerally negative responses to the prospect of resettlement. There is widespread antipathy toward immigrants in general, and a loathing of Islam. Naysayers wrongly proclaim that the United States is a “Christian republic” and that there is no way for Muslims and Christians to successfully coexist in our society. This is nonsense. Such fruitful coexistence is as old as our republic. As Casey Barrs asserted here a month ago, the only hope the U.S. has of defeating ISIS is by cultivating good relationships with Muslims at home and abroad. Treating Muslims and their religion poorly is exactly what ISIS wants from us.
Several columns and letters (as well as e-mails addressed to me) illustrate astonishing disavowals of mainstream American values (civic and religious), and a mean-spiritedness that is difficult to comprehend. Maybe all of that is rooted in fear. I respect fear. I have fears of my own. I have to admit to being a little afraid of the consequences if America shuts down the refugee pipeline altogether and abandons millions of people to live in camps for what could be generations. What better way to encourage anti-American attitudes, and foster aggrieved militancy.
Fear of the unknown, willful ignorance of the facts about the Middle East -- especially our role in it -- and disregard for the rigors of the refugee vetting procedures now in place don’t add up to a respectable basis for opposing any refugee resettlement program in our state. The insistence put forth by some members of Congress that refuges be refused entry unless and until the individual heads of Homeland Security, the FBI and the State Department personally certify that there is no risk attached is both cruel and absurd.
Resettling refugees is in our national security interest. Helping them adjust to our language, landscape and economic conditions will enable refugees to contribute directly to Montana’s prosperity (as workers, professionals and entrepreneurs) and to enrich our cultural make-up. Finally, there’s just no avoiding this simple reality: Montanans from many backgrounds, walks of life and faith traditions are infused with an humanitarian impulse. They want to help other people survive, and ultimately thrive in our midst. That’s a fact, and a happy one to boot.