For most of my adult life, I have worked with refugees both overseas and in the US. So, I DO understand the plight of refugees and the challenges of successfully resettling them in their new American homeland.
That said, I just read a lengthy article in the local newspaper in which the mayor and the local refugee resettlement director discounted the Syrian refugee threat by sweepingly equating the reaction of those of us with legitimate concerns about the flawed vetting process of Syrian refugees with "knee-jerk reactions of politicians". I was understandably irked. The very idea of my being a politician is offensive. But, at least my colleagues and I weren't characterized as bigots, racists, xenophobes or Islamophobes. Very surprising, indeed.
In the article, the local director was quoted as saying that "all refugees go through a rigorous review process before being allowed to come to the U.S." He went on to say that "we shouldn't allow terrorists and criminals to dictate changes to our great tradition of welcoming the stranger", pointing out that local resettlement agencies "can't pick and choose whom to accept."
That last string of quotes smacked of talking points--not reasoned arguments--for permitting the influx of inadequately vetted Syrian refugees into our community. I immediately questioned that if the threat of "terrorists and criminals" should not dictate how we tackle the question of welcoming potential terrorists and criminals into our midst, then what exactly should dictate whom we permit to resettle next door to us.
His also stating that local agencies "can't pick and choose whom to accept" is, for the most part, false. In the case of refugees entering to join family members already here, then, yes, the agency is expected to accept them into our community; however, so-called "free cases", or those refugees without anchor relatives already in place in the community, may be rejected for resettlement by the local agency. Bear that mind.
He went on by asserting that "Syrians coming to the US will likely come through an orderly process from refugee camps," again adding that "it is a very secure process." Likely? Not reassuring.
Obviously he has ignored or entirely discounted the remarks of our security agency heads who have consistently and unambiguously warned about the flawed vetting process of Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees.
Since I'm sure the local resettlement program has come under considerable pressure of late, and not wanting to pile on, I contacted an old colleague and friend at the national refugee resettlement agency with which the local agency is affiliated.
I explained that local community groups with whom I am closely affiliated have understandable concerns about the resettlement of Syrian refugees in our community, and went on to cite the quotes of the local director which appeared in the newspaper.
His first reaction was that it was not true that the local agency cannot reject refugees. Those who are not arriving to join family members already resettled in the community may be rejected by the local agency. This would certainly describe all the Syrian refugees earmarked for resettlement in this community.
Throughout the cordial conversation--we hadn't spoken for years--I sensed a inclination on his part to adroitly skirt the potential threat posed by the resettlement of Syrian refugees. When queried about the inadequate vetting process for Syrian refugees in particular, he seemed unaware of the DIA's, FBI's and DOD's warnings about the absence of an adequate database to properly vet these refugees. Has there been a news blackout?
He emailed me an updated version of the 13-step vetting process currently in use, and seemed convinced that the process was adequate. I pointed out that the vetting process is fine as it applies to non-Middle Eastern refugee groups, but that we're talking about Islamic refugees, some of whom could well be ISIS or Al Quaida infiltrators; that it only took 8 radical Islamists to slaughter 129 people in Paris. He gingerly acknowledged this threat, but quickly went on to point out the obvious: these refugees have been in camps for up to 4 years and are badly in need of help; that after such a prolonged period of time "one would think" that [even without a database with which to work] that the wheat could be effectively separated from the chaff.
I opined that merely hoping that such is the case is one thing, but asked if on that hope alone were we willing to risk a terrorist attack which might otherwise have been averted. He again gently agreed, but kept returning to the genuine suffering of the bulk of Syrian refugees. That was his fallback position throughout the conversation. He could never really bring himself to fully grapple with the real threat of improperly vetted Syrian refugees. For him, compassion alone trumped caution.
We both worked in refugee camps in Southeast Asia and were both involved in interviewing and otherwise screening SEA refugees before they were finally approved for entry into the US. Clearly, these were entirely different refugee groups--no terrorist inclinations among them at all. Thus, the vetting process for SEA refugees proved to be adequate and no warnings from our security agencies about the vetting process were necessarily forthcoming.
We agreed that the suffering Syrian refugees needed help, but we couldn't agree that a moratorium on the resettlement of Syrian refugees was the responsible course of action to take.
We then spoke about the difficulty we all had with smoothly resettling Somalian refugees in the past, but he couldn't recall but two Somalians being arrested for terrorist related activities after arrival. I reminded him of a substantial number of Somalian refugees who had been resettled in Minnesota who had linked up with ISIS; that although they are likely under close surveillance by the U.S. government they are still free and their legal status here unchanged. In short, I reminded him that they remained a serious potential terrorist threat to the homeland. Again he agreed, but was indisposed to grasp the true nature of the threat. Like so many companies and organizations, it is difficult for resettlement agencies, local or national, to see things as they really are, in this case to clearly see the threat attending a flawed vetting process. As always, agency and organization culture and those inevitable talking points pretty much dictates an employee's outlook and opinions. So, while his stance was unsurprising, when weighing the validity of refugee program commentary, from the start we must all bear carefully in mind this ingrained myopia.
Possible remedy: if a refugee is a "Free Case" (with no familial US ties), the local resettlement agency CAN, in fact, say no. Thus, the remedy for those of us who are pushing for a moratorium on the resettlement of Syrian refugees may be to pressure the local resettlement agency to reject Free Syrian cases. In most communities without Syrian refugees already in place, such an effort would most certainly stop the influx. Moratorium accomplished on the local level.
With this in mind, I drafted the following editorial for local consumption. The newspaper's being a seriously liberal newspaper, who can say if it will be published: