What others say: Refugees deserve a place in the United States

  • Thursday, November 26, 2015 7:49pm
  • Opinion

In the nine days since Paris was hit by Islamic terrorists who killed more than 130 people and wounded hundreds more, a growing number of U.S. governors have vowed to turn away any refugees seeking shelter at their borders.

Montanans can take pride in the fact that our governor is not one of them.

While Montana is not exactly the destination of choice for most of the refugees fleeing the death and carnage in their home lands, residents here are organizing efforts to boost resources in order to resettle more immigrants in our state.

One local group called Soft Landings Missoula is working to bring an official resettlement agency to the area, a move that would open western Montana to more refugee families in the future. Missoula was home to just such an agency as recently as 2008. Before then, it helped many Hmong and eastern European immigrants, among others, settle in the Missoula area.

Most of these settlers came here to escape certain death in their home countries. They infused their new home with new customs and traditions, and we are all the richer for it.

Yet with President Barack Obama’s pledge to expedite the entrance of 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States, Montana’s Republican leaders – U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Rep. Ryan Zinke and Attorney General Tim Fox – have urged our nation to turn its back on this rich heritage, and on the plight of thousands of refugees who are dying even as we debate whether to accept them.

The U.S. is proposing to take on only a small fraction of the refugee crisis our European neighbors are seeing on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s understandable that we would want to keep that unfolding tragedy from our own shores. It’s also unrealistic.

The Islamic State has carried out violent attacks in Paris, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey. All of the suspects identified in the Paris attacks are citizens of Belgium or France, except for one who may have used a fake Syrian passport to enter Europe via Greece.

Europe is struggling under a deluge of refugees that is straining its resources and its security. But the U.S., an ocean away from this humanitarian crisis, is not Europe. In addition to our obvious geographical differences, the American refugee screening process is much tighter than those of European nations, which have been hit with much higher numbers of applicants. In Greece, for instance, where an estimated 300,000 refugees have been processed so far this year, interviewers may meet with more than 1,000 migrants in a single day.

The U.S. system of vetting and resettling refugees is not perfect, but it is intensive. Refugees seeking to come to the U.S. must first meet the referral criteria required by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Once they have a referral, they can apply for refugee status and request an in-person interview with an officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Then, a dozen government agencies and non-government entities – including the State Department, National Counterterrorism Center, Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services and the International Organization for Migration – will process those applications.

This rigorous process typically takes at least 18 months – often longer. And so far, only about 2,000 Syrian refugees have been allowed to enter the U.S. since the war in their home country started in March 2011.

The Obama administration is proposing to speed up this process to allow more Syrians. Level heads have acknowledged that this can be accomplished while taking additional steps to ensure no terrorists slip through.

Gov. Steve Bullock, for one, has joined the call to review the existing screening process. On this, he is in agreement with Montana’s congressional delegation.

But Bullock and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, while calling for additional security measures, are not calling to block refugees completely.

Zinke, on the other hand, has introduced legislation with North Carolina Republican Rep. Richard Hudson that would beef up federal security requirements – so far so good – but also stop all refugee resettlements until such time as Congress deems it appropriate to allow them.

Daines more reasonably called for focusing national resources on helping refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries and working to end the civil war in Syria. The U.S. should absolutely commit to doing those things as well.

But it should not close the door on the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as the inscription reads on the Statute of Liberty. America can continue to accept refugees, as we always have. We can provide some measure of relief to our allies in these turbulent times by accepting a greater number of refugees from Syria; this does not mean we must welcome them witlessly. We can enhance security screening requirements as necessary.

After all, there are perils in allowing our European neighbors to shoulder this burden alone. Overwhelmed nations do not make strong allies in a global war on terror. The U.S. has a duty and an interest in providing aid to the world’s refugees until- the day comes that they can safely return to their home countries.

— The Missoulian

Nov. 22

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