A Betrayal of Our Better Angels

A Syrian family waits after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos along with other migrants and refugees, on November 17, 20
A Syrian family waits after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos along with other migrants and refugees, on November 17, 2015, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. At least eight people drowned when a boat carrying migrants from Turkey sank off the Greek island of Kos, the coastguard said on November 17, 2015. They were the latest of nearly 3,500 deaths at sea this year among people making desperate bids to flee war and poverty and to reach Europe, according to UN figures. European leaders tried to focus on joint action with Africa to tackle the migration crisis, as Slovenia became the latest EU member to act on its own by barricading its border. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Illinois has offered protection and new life to war refugees from Iraq, to persecuted Jews and Christians from Iran and the former USSR, and to the lost boys of Sudan. But for Syrians, it seems, Illinois offers only a cold shoulder.

Governor Bruce Rauner's announcement that Illinois would jump on the bandwagon and suspend accepting new Syrian refugees was both misguided and a betrayal of Illinois's rich history of welcoming refugees.

Governor Rauner insisted that it was necessary to stop accepting Syrian refugees to ensure the "safety and security" of Illinois' citizens, and that a suspension would remain in place "pending a full review of our country's acceptance and security processes" for resettled refugees. Yet as the White House, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security have made abundantly clear this week, those processes are rigorous and careful.

This process has allowed more than 3 million people fleeing war and persecution to build new lives in the United States over the last 40 years - without compromising US citizens' safety and security. More than 97,000 of these refugees have been resettled in Illinois, where they have opened businesses, thrived in school, and become valued members of our community.

While it is unclear how the governor's ban on Syrian resettlement is meant to work, given his lack of authority to prevent any individual from traveling to or living in Illinois, his announcement nonetheless sent a destructive message: that Illinois, long a safe haven for refugees fleeing war and persecution, is turning its back on that legacy out of misguided fear and political gamesmanship.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, Illinois welcomed 9,000 Vietnamese refugees. Despite deep polarization over the Vietnam War, hawks and doves, Republicans and Democrats, were united in welcoming these refugees. Providing a secure home for refugees has never been a partisan issue. From the killing fields of Cambodia, Illinois provided safe haven to 3,000. From the conflict that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, Illinois resettled 15,600, including many Muslims.

The governor should consider what this message means to the 171 Syrian refugees who have arrived in Illinois over the last four years and are already living here, under his authority. They've expressed gratitude at the welcome they have received. "We don't feel like we're alone," Fatima, a mother of two who escaped unspeakable brutality in Syria, recently said of her new life in Chicago. Yet the governor is now telling these new constituents that he views them and their children as a security threat, as potential perpetrators of the violence they have fled themselves.

Families like Fatima's have undergone a rigorous and careful vetting process that involves the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and intelligence agencies. This process can take years, and while it drags on, refugees -- over half of them children -- are waiting to be resettled. They languish in refugee camps and poverty while they wait for their security clearance.

These people are not a threat. They are human beings who should be greeted and treated according to Illinois' tradition of hospitality. Governor Rauner should heed the greatest Illinoisan, Abraham Lincoln, by providing leadership consistent with "the better angels of our nature" and withdraw his call to suspend Syrian refugee resettlement.

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