Over the last week, a growing number of governors, representatives, senators and presidential candidates have demanded that America slam shut our borders to refugees who are fleeing unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Islamic State. On Thursday the House passed a bill containing impossibly onerous vetting procedures for new refugees from Syria.
The American character is being tested. Will we hew to our long tradition of being a beacon of hope for those chased from their homelands?
I have always believed that the United States is a place of refuge for those escaping persecution, starvation or other horrors that thankfully most in America will never experience.
First, we need to put the numbers in perspective. In the case of Syrian refugees, the United States has agreed to accept about 5 percent of those fleeing the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. They will be allowed in our country only after the federal government conducts a robust and rigorous screening process. The numbers arriving in any one state are small: From Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30, 2015, 25 Syrian refugees settled in Washington State.
Nevertheless, many of my fellow governors have been quick and loud in proclaiming their states off limits to Syrian refugees — even though governors lack authority to close state borders to refugees. They spoke before knowing what the review process entailed, and in some cases punctuated their comments with divisive and misguided rhetoric that appeared to saddle all Syrians with the crimes of the Islamic State.
The House bill, which President Obama has said he will veto, would essentially halt the resettlement of refugees fleeing Syria. That’s a mistake driven by fear, not sound policy making. It doesn’t offer meaningful improvement to what is already a rigorous screening process, but would effectively close our borders to the victims of the Islamic State.
I have called for a different approach. I told Washingtonians that I wouldn’t join those who wanted to demonize people because of the country they flee or the religion they practice. I will uphold our reputation as a place that embraces compassion and equality and eschews fear-mongering.
Like many states, we have long kept an open door for people fleeing violence and repression. In 1975, Daniel J. Evans, a Republican governor, welcomed Vietnamese refugees to our state, even as other states turned their backs, along the lines of what we hear today about Syrians. Governor Evans’s initial invitation to accept 500 of these refugees became the basis for a successful resettlement program that continues to this day, helping those fleeing war and persecution rebuild their lives. Today, nearly 70,000 Vietnamese-Americans live in Washington, and they have added to our quality of life in countless ways.
Today we welcome refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. In 2014, more than 2,800 refugees from countless countries arrived in Washington, and no one demanded we send them back to where they came from.
Similar stories can be told about other states, some of which were, until recently, warm and opening to Syrian refugees. That’s why it is disheartening to see how easily people turn their backs on human suffering — even more so when the ones turning their backs are those who were chosen to lead.
America has been swayed by fear before. And we’ve lived to regret it. My home is on Bainbridge Island, a small island across Puget Sound from Seattle. It was the first place in the nation where Japanese-Americans were subjected to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Exclusion Orders. These Washingtonians were marched to the docks by soldiers and sent to internment camps.
They spent years in the camps, even while their own sons served honorably in the armed forces. That wasn’t consistent with who we are as a country, and today we look back at that period with shame and regret. We are a nation built on holding dear our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our humanity and our relationship with the rest of the world.
It’s easy to lose your way in moments like this when we are so fearful. Fear is powerful. The terrorist attacks in France struck deep, and we have a legitimate concern for our safety and security.
There is no guarantee that the same thing can’t happen here, and no way to erase all risk. Governors are correct to demand that the federal government conduct the most thorough review of refugee applications. However, I’ve spoken with federal officials about this and they feel confident about the in-depth and robust process that is in place for all political refugees, with extra precautions for those fleeing Syria. It is the toughest process anyone has to go through to enter the United States — much harder than, say, for people on tourist visas. I know that I and other governors will be vigilant in insisting that the federal government continues that and helps keep our citizens safe.
People are right to be angry and hurting because 129 innocent people who thought they were safe were slaughtered in Paris. But we cannot condemn all Syrians or all Muslims for those heinous acts. America has been victimized by domestic and foreign terrorists. The blame for those acts should be with the radicals who committed them, not any religion, race or country of origin.
I don’t deny or condemn the fear that has swelled since the Paris attacks. But fear can be overcome. We can take a deep breath, stand up straight and make a realistic assessment of risk. And we can’t forget the times we have been tested, both when we’ve failed and when we’ve succeeded.
Jay Inslee, a Democrat, is the governor of Washington.