Across large swathes of our country, a false choice for the American people is resulting in an ugly abdication of American values and leadership. Throughout the day on Monday, 27 governors (26 Republicans and 1 Democrat) declared their intentions to attempt to block any Syrian refugees from settling within their respective states in the name of protecting the homeland.
These prohibitions, driven by the fear and anger surrounding the horrific attacks in Paris and from the unconfirmed possibility that one of the terrorists may have had a Syrian passport, represent a stunning lack of empathy for hundreds of thousands of people desperately seeking to escape the very type of violence we oppose. Not only does this go against everything we stand for as America—it plays right into the hands of our enemies, who want nothing more than for us to abandon our values and allow these families to continue to suffer under their rule.
Our first priority is and should continue to be to protect our nation, period—but we already do that. The fear that insufficient vetting of refugees will allow terrorists or their sympathizers to slip into the states ignores the well-developed capabilities of the United States government to prevent exactly that. Unlike in Greece, Syrian refugees are not arriving on our shores by boats or small rafts in the thousands.
In fact, in spite of false stories circulating the internet, fewer than 2,200 refugees from Syria have been relocated to the U.S. since the beginning of the war. The refugee screening process currently in place takes an average of 12 to 18 months per successful applicant (with additional steps for Syrians), and it involves coordination between agencies as diverse as the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland Security. The process is so thorough that more than 750,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States since September 11, 2001, yet not one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges.
Does that mean it isn’t possible for someone to infiltrate the system in order to carry out an attack on American soil? Of course not. No system is perfect, and we must remain diligent when it comes to our screening process and constantly strive to improve it. But pretending that we have no screening process already in place is as immoral as it is misleading. Our leaders have the responsibility to have an honest conversation with us about the threats we face, and the solutions we should embrace to keep us safe—not to put on the most outrageous political theater they can muster.
A quick glance at the bandwagon reveals some bewildering passengers. Louisiana Governor and four-time winner of the Undercard Debate Participant Ribbon Bobby Jindal was one early adopter of the anti-refugee position. Jindal, himself the son of immigrants from the war-torn Punjab state of India, expressed his lack of understanding of irony by signing an executive order that not only halted the inflow of any refugees to Louisiana, but also authorized the Louisiana State Police (presumably led by Sherriff J. W. Pepper, given his prior liaison with MI6) to monitor all 14 Syrian refugees already settled in the Pelican State.
Some governors don’t need a futile run for president to excuse a scarcely concealed contempt for not only Syrian refugees, but apparently foreigners in general. Arizona’s Gov. Doug Ducey took one of the most extreme positions in the nation, demanding that the federal government halt the resettlement of all refugees within his state—not just those fleeing the brutal violence of the Syrian civil war. It seems hard to justify a prohibition on admitting those fleeing from states like Myanmar, Cuba, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo on a fear of ISIL infiltrators.
And finally, a perfect example of abdicating leadership to avoid tough conversations with some of the most informed constituents in the nation is New Hampshire’s Gov. Maggie Hassan. Gov. Hassan became the only member of the president’s party joining the panic train, breaking the hearts of Democrats everywhere and endearing herself to tens of Republicans. The Governor’s decision was surely based on heretofore-unreported problems with the more than 3,300 refugees that have become Granite Staters in the past 7 years rather than her coming 2016 Senate battle with Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
The most ludicrous part of all this chest thumping? The governors can’t even follow through. Per the Refugee Act of 1980, the president accepts and directs refugees into the United States. Yet their empty gestures are still inspiring damaging policy and rhetoric of the GOP presidential field, with son of a refugee (but not the Muslim kind, relax) Sen. Ted Cruz pushing a bill to ban the appropriation of funding Syrian refugees, and master of the folksy-offensive, former Gov. Mike Huckabee (of my own home state of Arkansas), demanding we “wake up and smell the falafel” and stop “importing terror.”
But there’s something fundamentally damaging about all of this, too—a dimming of the American beacon of hope, intangible but far-reaching. Those who fear refugees indiscriminately, or turn from saving thousands of lives without even understanding the processes in place to keep us safe, have the flattest, simplest views of “us vs. them.” An America that wishes to be an active participant on the global stage cannot afford to cede control to those who would leave the innocent with their faces pressed against the glass, looking for hope that will never come.
In the decades following World War II, the world looked to the United States for an example of open-handed kindness to those most in need. Now, it sees a growing number of xenophobes, egged on by leaders embracing a cheap politics of fear. We must not sacrifice our values and give into the extremists who wish to tear us down and destroy all we hold dear. Instead, we must fight—not only with our military and diplomatic tools, but with our spirit. For living our values is the truest way to defend them.
If you are serving in or running for office in the United States, lead that fight or get out of the way. We deserve better than false choices and fear-mongering.
Brandon Fureigh is the Chief Strategy Officer of the Truman National Security Project. He previously was a Training Coordinator working with U.S. Marines preparing to deploy to the Middle East and has been involved with a number of political and issue advocacy campaigns.
Photo: Syrian refugees call for help and empty water from their flooding raft as they approach the Greek island of Lesbos October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis