by Raymond Levitt
Glen Casada, Tennessee House GOP Caucus chairman, recently proposed the state round up Syrian refugees and have them removed: “We need to activate the Tennessee National Guard and stop them from coming in to the state by whatever means we can.” The Congressman who represents me in the U.S. House of Representatives, John J. Duncan Jr., issued a press release calling for a ban on all refugees, and accused them of stealing jobs from Americans. And the U.S. House passed legislation (H.R. 4033) that would suspend admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and give state governments the authority to not accept refugees into their territory.
I understand the deep concern that a Syrian or other Arab-state terrorist could enter our country posing as a refugee. Calls for heightened vigilance and a review of existing vetting procedures are not unreasonable; indeed, it would be foolish to do otherwise. But we must also be vigilant that we do not lose our humanity. Hostile speech directed towards refugees is uncalled for and can have real consequences. Yesterday, I helped a refugee from Syria look for work. Omar—I’m not using his real name, for obvious reasons—told me afterward, over lunch, that he is afraid to tell anyone that he is from Syria. He has been searching for a job for several weeks without success and is somewhat discouraged. He would be happy with a minimum-wage job. Omar’s asylum application, from start to finish, took five years. Imagine waiting five years only to finally arrive and discover that many Americans, including government officials, don’t want you here.
And how could so many of our leaders forget the thousands of Iraqi nationals who served alongside our troops in the war zone? In return for their service, our government promised them the opportunity to become American citizens. Some of them now live in Knoxville. I had the pleasure of meeting one such refugee, Abdul, who served as a translator with our forces for two years. He had recently arrived in Knoxville with his wife and three children. I visited with him and his wife, Leyla, in their kitchen, where a large American flag hung on the wall next to the table where we sat. Among their many needs, first and foremost was a job. (Abdul receives none of the benefits that our veterans receive.) When I mentioned a job to Abdul that I thought looked promising, he told me that it wouldn’t be suitable since he couldn’t perform any of the required lifting due to an injury to his right arm. I was very much moved when he showed me his disfigured arm and related that he had been in an Army vehicle that had been blown up by a roadside bomb. He was nearly killed.
The vetting process Abdul went through took three years; in the interim, he and his family had to go into hiding, as many Iraqi veterans have had to do. The vetting process for these veterans is extremely complicated and involves many layers of review. As a result, far fewer of these veterans have been admitted than had originally been planned. Thousands are still waiting, each passing day their lives and their family member’s lives at risk.
Our government should deliberate carefully instead of rushing to pass ill-conceived legislation. H.R. 4033 would slam the door in the face of these veterans, and potentially contribute to more terrorist murder and despair. Additionally, by giving state governments the authority to accept or reject refugees, H.R. 4033 would permanently politicize refugee resettlement.
We must also think of the messages that we are sending to the refugees living and working here in the USA. Careless speech like representative Casada’s is potentially frightening for refugees. As an American born and raised, I know that his threat could never be carried out, for we are a nation of laws, but many refugees come from countries where the rule of law often does not carry the day. Some have experienced being “rounded up.”
Judging people based on their national origin or faith rather than who they are is not acceptable in America any more. It took a long time to fully instill this belief in American society and its institutions but it is an accomplishment we can be proud of. I am very proud of my country—we have built an open society that is admired by most of the world and I am certain that we will continue to open our arms to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world.
Raymond Levitt is a retired civil servant and a volunteer for Bridge Refugee Services.
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