In a week when the world was awash with outpourings of grief and solidarity for the Paris atrocities, some of our most prominent politicians here in the U.S. have responded with cowardice. Representative Steve Stivers, Republican of Ohio, circulated a letter urging President Obama to stop accepting any refugees from Iraq or Syria. As of last Monday, the letter had dozens of lawmakers' signatures. The House then passed a bill on Thursday to severely restrict the admission of refugees from Syria and Iraq.
The measure, which will almost certainly be vetoed by President Obama if it passes the Senate, is sponsored by Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. The measure stipulates that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson would have to personally certify each Syrian and Iraqi refugee as safe to enter the U.S., which would place such a huge burden upon his time that one can assume it would essentially render negligible the chances of any Syrian or Iraqi refugee entering the country.
If this effort fails, then Ted Poe, Republican of Texas, has proposed a separate piece of legislation that would allow Governors of States to refuse to take any refugees that the federal government may mandate them to take. Despite protestation from the White house that States do not have this right, twenty-seven State governors have come out publicly to say they would refuse new refugees from Syria!
Aside from the legislative assault on refugees, the rhetoric that has been used has been base and vile, to the extent that Ben Carson, who currently tops polls to become the Republican Presidential candidate, publicly likened Syrian refugees to rabid dogs.
The threat of terrorism is not primarily physical but existential. It is an aberration when 130 innocent people are gunned down. But it is a tragedy when those deaths are leveraged by politicians for their own personal gain. Indeed, it is a victory for the terrorists when those deaths become an excuse for weak and xenophobic politicians to pursue their jingoistic agendas.
We like to think that America has always provided a refuge to those in need. It was founded on the principle of giving those who felt persecuted for their religious beliefs in Europe a new world where they could practice their religion freely. This fundamental willingness to accept those in need is a core American value. At the base of the Statue of Liberty does it not say, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?" Lady Liberty was a gift from France. It would be a cruel irony if we allow our politicians to then throw this gift back in France's face at a time when we should be showing strength and a concrete willingness not to let terrorists destroy or diminish our values.
This year, working on a pro bono basis, I helped Muhammad Gulab gain refugee status in the U.S.. Mr Gulab is famous for being the Afghan villager who saved Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell's life, as depicted in the movie Lone Survivor. At considerable risk to himself and his family Mr. Gulab, who found the severely injured Navy Seal bleeding out from multiple gunshot wounds, gave him sanctuary and faced down the Taliban, refusing to give him up. I can attest to the screening process that Mr Gulab went through. Had it not been for my intervention and my pro bono work even this outsized hero would not have made it into the U.S.. So any argument made that the U.S. is an open border and that terrorists can come and go freely is a complete fantasy. We already have the strictest screening procedures on Earth.
Our screening procedures are working. Since 9/11, the U.S. has taken roughly 784,000 refugees. Of these, only three have been arrested on terrorism charges; none had planned an attack on U.S. soil, and two of them were arrested in the airport attempting to leave the States to join foreign terrorist groups. The risk posed is small enough to be negligible. Were we to lift up the drawbridge and hide behind our walls, we would be shutting out heroes like Muhammad Gulab who risked everything to save American lives.
Not every refugee who applies for asylum in the U.S. is a hero like Mr. Gulab. In fact only 2% of those who successfully gain refugee status in the United States are men of military age. The vast majority are women, children, and the elderly. They are the neediest of all. We have a moral obligation not to slam the door in their faces. Just as Mr. Gulab gave sanctuary to an American in need, we too have an obligation to return the favor. We too must stare down the terrorists and refuse to give up those who we shelter.
We must also remember the gravity of the situation in Syria and Iraq at the hands of ISIS. The death of 130 Parisians is an atrocity, but it pales in the face of the 191,000 who had been killed in Syria as of August 2014, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. It is estimated that thus far in 2015 over 45,904 people have died, of which 10,833 are civilians. ISIS's stock and trade is barbarity. It is famous for sexual enslavement, crucifixions and beheadings.
It almost seems redundant to remind the Republicans this week that a terrorist's main weapon is fear. The day after the attacks, Parisians proudly returned to their cafés to prove they were unbowed. I applaud the fact that the president of France reaffirmed his pledge to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees even in the wake of these attacks. If France can respond so admirably to an existential threat on its own soil by reaffirming its commitment to their values, then why can't we do the same?
In the wake of terror we must similarly hold our heads up and show the terrorists that they cannot break us or sour our freedoms. Our mettle is being tested, and we cannot be seen to be brittle. To call Syrian refugees "rabid dogs" and to denigrate their suffering is to hand ISIS the most potent recruiting tool imaginable. To respond to the attacks in France by fundamentally repudiating the values upon which our country was founded is to allow the terrorists to win.