During the Thanksgiving season I normally give thanks to my grandparents for fleeing Russia in 1905 and to America for taking them in.
But this year, given the hysteria over Syrian immigrants, I want to pay tribute to some voices of sanity who are standing up for American values and upholding our long tradition of welcoming refugees.
Let me start with Chris George, the head of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, a New Haven, Conn.-based nonprofit that helps settle refugees in Connecticut (www.irisct.org). When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence announced that his state would refuse entry to a Syrian refugee family scheduled to settle in Indianapolis — one of 31 governors who vowed to keep Syrians out of their states, all but one Republican — George quickly reacted. He invited them to New Haven, where Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy personally welcomed them.
“My phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from people and groups from all over the state offering to welcome Syrian refugees,” George told me by phone. “They will make great neighbors and citizens.” George also reports that he received many emails from Indiana residents apologizing for their governor’s behavior.
“We are confident,” he adds, “that our government will thoroughly screen all refugees — as it has done in the past — before they are invited to resettle here.”
What is so disturbing about the agitation over Syrian refugees is the degree to which politicians are fanning public fears by misrepresenting the facts about the refugees. Even more disturbing is how they ignore the draconian vetting procedures already in place.
The misrepresentation starts with the numbers. Of the millions of Syrians who have fled bombs and civil war, the worst refugee catastrophe since World War II, the United States has taken just 2,174 since 2013.
The administration proposes to take only 10,000 more. Yet Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump continues to propagate the malicious lie that President Barack Obama has invited in 250,000 Syrian refugees.
(Note that, even after the Paris attacks, France has pledged to take 30,000 and Canada 20,000, while Germany is taking hundreds of thousands. Meantime, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey together are hosting millions.)
Furthermore, priority will be given to the most vulnerable Syrians, families with small kids, female-headed households, and torture victims (the only category of single men who will be admitted). These Syrians hardly fit the terrorist profile. These are desperate families fleeing from terrorists.
So let me also salute Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a four-tour Iraq vet, who tweeted this about his state’s Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who has been trying to ban Syrian refugees from his state: “Gov. Baker doesn’t know the difference between refugees and those from whom they need refuge (meaning the Islamic State).” When Baker accused Moulton of resorting to “partisan talking points” the Iraq vet fired back: “My American values and Marine Corps experience are not ‘partisan talking points.’”
The political misrepresentation continues when it comes to security concerns. It is understandable that Americans are nervous in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, and I wish Obama would address the nation more forcefully to tamp down outsized fears. But the anti-immigrant brigade is ignoring the facts.
The current, draconian vetting process for refugees takes nearly two years. None of the Syrians admitted in recent years has been arrested or deported on terrorism charges.
While no one can guarantee 100 percent accuracy, experts agree the real threat doesn’t come from refugees. Rather, it comes from U.S. or European citizens who have been radicalized on the Internet or who have traveled to Syria. Nearly all the known terrorists involved in the Paris attacks were French or Belgian citizens.
Yet nearly every House Republican (along with 47 Democrats) voted for a bill to impose vetting conditions virtually impossible for refugees to meet, a bill Obama rightly threatens to veto. They have turned a humanitarian issue into a partisan promotion of fear.
Fortunately, many Americans still understand that helping settle those fleeing torture and war exemplifies what the country stands for. George told me that he’s getting “an enormous outpouring of support from churches, synagogues, and mosques” asking to sponsor refugees or offering other means of support.
One poignant example:
Last week, George’s organization received the Unsung Heroes Award from the Morris and Irmgard Wessel Fund, a Jewish family foundation. David Wessel wrote to George that the fund was thanking IRIS “for doing for a new generation of immigrants what others did for (his mother) Irm Wessel 75 years ago.”
In 1940, Wessel wrote, the Disciple of Christ Church in Eureka, Ill., decided it was their moral duty to help resettle refugees fleeing Nazi terror. A church delegation reached out to the Wessel family, newly arrived from Germany and living in a refugee hostel in Iowa. It offered them a home in Eureka and welcomed them into a community “that had rarely known Jews, let alone German-born Jews.” Wessel’s mother “never forgot the fear and desperation of being a refugee and a new immigrant,” her son wrote, “and was a lifelong advocate for those who came to America after she did.”
Chris George and the Wessels are celebrating the values that define this country. On Thanksgiving, at a time when fearmongers are attacking those values, they deserve our thanks.