Syrian Refugees

In today’s local newspaper this was published on the editorial page.  The author is Ronald Stephens, a member of Hendersonville’s city council.  My response to the author follows.

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In a Times-News editorial (Sunday, July 3), the headline admonished “Get the facts before reacting,” referring to my comments on hearing that St. James Episcopal Church is exploring the possibility of hosting Middle Eastern refugees in Hendersonville.

I had said in a television interview that I was concerned that St. James’ activities could open the door for Syrian refugees to be housed here.

The editorial did not tell the whole story, and it failed to support the conclusion it insinuated — that those speaking against what St. James is considering have a “witch-hunt mentality.” That’s untrue, and I applaud those in our community who are speaking out on this matter. Opinions I’ve received through social media, phone calls and in person are thoughtful and heartfelt.

Perhaps an article about “getting the facts before making a decision on bringing Middle Eastern refugees here” might be in order.

• Fact 1: Mayor Barbara Volk indicated our concerns were “overblown” because it would take a long time for St. James’ plan to come to fruition. But that doesn’t mean a plan isn’t going forward.

Overcoming the one hindrance cited — Hendersonville’s distance from an approved resettlement office — is exactly what is being considered. In a June 23 email, Mayor Volk said: “… They (St. James) are applying, through the Episcopal Church, to be a refugee resettlement agency.”

• Fact 2: There is good reason to believe that the refugees St. James would host would be Syrian.

Among print materials Mayor Volk received from St. James were two articles specifically referring to Syrian refugees: “Syrian Refugees Don’t Pose a Serious Security Threat,” published by the Cato Institute, and “Myths and Facts: Resettling Syrian Refugees,” from the U.S. Department of State.

 Fact 3: Notwithstanding those two articles, there is serious concern that Syrian refugees cannot be properly vetted.

On Nov. 17, 2015, the Washington Post reported in part:

“FBI Director James Comey (said) in congressional testimony last month that ‘a number of people who were of serious concern’ slipped through the screening of Iraq War refugees … . ‘There’s no doubt that was the product of a less than excellent vetting,’ ” he said.

“Although Comey said the process has since ‘improved dramatically,’ Syrian refugees will be even harder to check because, unlike in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have not been on the ground collecting information on the local population. ‘If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,’ he said. ‘I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.’ ”

• Fact 4: Not being able to properly vet refugees increases the risk of bringing in potential terrorists.

It is reported that in the past fiscal year, 1,682 Syrian refugees were admitted to the U.S., and roughly 23 percent were adult males (U.S. Department of State: “Myths and Facts: Resettling Syrian Refugees”). That may seem like a low percentage, but applying it to President Barack Obama’s goal of admitting 10,000 this fiscal year, we’d be admitting 2,300 men.

• Fact 5: It is unlikely that bringing refugees here is the best means of helping them.

In “The High Cost of Resettling Middle Eastern Refugees” (November 2015), the Center for Immigration Studies stated that resettlement in the United States for one Middle Eastern refugee costs American taxpayers an estimated $64,370 over the first five years, 12 times the U.N. estimate for caring for one refugee in a neighboring Middle Eastern country.

Dr. Steven Camarota, the center’s director of research and lead author of the report, commented, “Given limited funds, the high cost of resettling refugees in the United States means that providing for them in neighboring countries in the Middle East is more cost-effective, allowing us to help more people.”

• Fact 6: In today’s environment, with people understandably concerned with matters of security, the question should be asked: Is helping refugees more important than helping with the needs of our community, i.e., homeless children, fallout from domestic violence, adequate/affordable housing, meaningful employment, to name just a few?

The refugees’ plight is terrible, but there are real hardships here just as worthy of concern. No doubt the people at St. James are honestly seeking to help with a serious problem, but I don’t believe it is witch-hunting to suggest that there may be safer and more cost-effective ways to apply our time and treasure.

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Mr. Stephens

Your column in today’s T-N reminded me immediately of Richard Nixon’s maiden speech to Congress in 1947.  It was nominally about one individual but the context was the common suspicion that European refugees MIGHT be communists and therefore visas should not be issued for them to come here as refugees.  This was two years after Ike had films made at the newly liberated concentration camps for newsreels shown in almost every movie theater in America.  Everyone knew the truth about who these refugees were.

It reminds me of Breckenridge Long, a member of FDR’s administration before and during World War II and was in charge of immigration.  He did everything he could to obstruct Jewish refugees from coming here because, he said, some of them might be German agents.   He justified this in his diary by referencing the contemporary strict laws in the United States imposing quotas on the number of immigrants from particular countries, and his great concern about the possibility that Germany and the Soviet Union would introduce spies or subversive agents into the United States amidst the large numbers of refugees.

 

I wonder how many Jewish lives would have been saved if it were not for this hostility based on appeals to reason and security.

 

It reminds me of a dark side in American history going back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.  It reminds me of a history of legislation, political demagoguery, and mob violence against immigrants ever since then.

 

You are no different from them.

 

The Syrian civil war, ISIS, and the rise of Iran are all direct results of our invasion of Iraq in 2003, a predictable result, by the way.  This is a mess we made and which will trouble the region for some time to come.  The Muslim countries in the region have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees.  Those countries, including Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, are overwhelmed.  There are 7.6 million refugees still within Syria and 4.1 million in neighboring countries.  Europe has taken in 348,000.  According to your essay we have taken in 1682 in the last fiscal year.

 

After the Viet Nam War we took in about 800,000 Vietnamese refugees and have taken in millions since.  There might have been security concerns, but those were set aside because of the human crisis which was largely our creation and our responsibility.

 

Your “facts” are taken from The Center for Immigration Studies, which has been cited as a nativist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  This organization is biased and not reliable, yet you cite them as authoritative.

 

This again places you on that dark side of American history.

 

This is not about political parties or ideologies.  It is about morality.  St. James congregation is answering the call of our faith traditions, which is very much founded on people taking care of each other including strangers and including even enemies.

 

Frankly, Mr. Stephens, I would rather have a family of refugees living next door than someone like you.  The immigrant families I have had as neighbors appreciated and loved this country for accepting them.  I think you take it for granted not recognizing what makes America something special in human history.

 

L’shalom

 

Rabbi Philip J Bentley

 

PS When I sign as “Rabbi” I am writing as a member of the clergy, not just as a citizen.

 

PPS I hope you will respond to this letter and in a civil manner.  I have tried to be civil about something that is deeply disturbing to me.

 

PPPS  Without doubt you are familiar with the following poem.  You may not realize it was written by a young aristocratic Jewish-American woman on seeing the conditions of immigrants arriving in New York.

 

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door

 

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