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Anti-Refugee Rhetoric Fundamentally Un-American

by Farhat Popal (MPP '09)

The 31 US governors who have refused to accept Syrian refugees, the majority of whom are women and children, seem to have forgotten that we are a nation made up entirely of people who have traveled from far and wide - perhaps during this generation or perhaps generations ago - to seek refuge from persecution and conflict.

As one of millions of Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet war of 1979-1989, I would not be here today if it were not for human kindness and generosity. It is exactly this experience that motivates me and countless others who have fled unfathomable circumstances to work to advance these same American values - as public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, educators, and productive members of society in general.   

The refugee screening process that currently exists is robust:  it involves biographic and biometric security checks, with information run through databases maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center, the Pentagon, and domestic and international law enforcement agencies. An enhanced interview is conducted by specially trained staff. Refugees must undergo health screenings, and cultural orientation before they arrive in the United States. It is an intensive process that takes 18-24 months and requires prior referral from the U.N. refugee agency and approval by the Department of Homeland Security.

While our elected representatives used the attacks in Paris to engage in unabashed scapegoating of people who have seen and endured the unimaginable, the response of the French president was to reconfirm his commitment to taking in 30,000 refugees because, in his words, “our duty is to carry on our lives.” Perhaps the root of the problem lies elsewhere. Perhaps there is no screening strong enough, no measures safe enough, to accept a group of people that some of our elected leaders deem “dangerous.”

On November 19, the House of Representatives passed a bill to suspend the program allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S. until national security agencies certify they do not pose a security risk. The same day, more than half of the nation’s Governors said their state would refuse to accept and resettle refugees. Republican candidate Ted Cruz says only Christian refugees should be allowed; Donald Trump says Muslims should be registered and tracked.  

Deeming an entire group as a risk to public safety because of the actions of one person is absurd. Yet our elected representatives have no problem making this conclusion - about Syrian refugees, about Muslims - and making it loudly. It has become acceptable to justify all manner of discrimination in the name of national security, whether real or perceived. Our founding fathers would be alarmed and dismayed to hear this type of rhetoric, rhetoric that is un-American at its very core. The title of Nicholas Kristof’s latest column says it best: “The Statue of Liberty Must Be Crying with Shame.”

Farhat Popal (MPP '09) is a Program Officer for the US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of her employer or the Goldman School.