Raul Labrador’s refugee bill is ill-advised legislation that needlessly targets some of the most vulnerable people on earth.
The legislation, H.R. 2826, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on June 28 on a 15-11 vote. This is a pernicious bill that will leave a stain on the moral standing of the United States.
Rep. Labrador acknowledges that America has “a long tradition of helping refugees who, through no fault of their own, are fleeing war and persecution,” but has authored a bill that is contrary to that tradition. Among other things, H.R. 2826 would limit refugee admissions to 50,000 per year, triple the waiting period for refugees to apply for lawful permanent residency from one to three years, subject refugees to continuous surveillance, give states and localities a veto over resettlement, impose needless new red tape requirements, and provide preference to religious minorities.
All of these requirements are justified by bill sponsors as necessary for national security. However, experience does not support their case. U.S. refugees have not and do not pose a danger to our country. Refugees do not pick the country they want but are referred to a country by the U.N. refugee agency. Those destined for the U.S. are subjected to about two years of rigorous screening.
A terrorist posing as a refugee would have to wait a long time to carry out his plan--spending years in a wretched refugee camp in Turkey or Jordan, hoping to be referred to the U.S. by the U.N. rather than one of the 27 other resettlement countries, and then undergoing another couple of years being vetted by U.S. authorities. He might be tempted to take the quicker and easier way that the 911 hijackers chose--to get a tourist or student visa and jump on a plane to the U.S. Interestingly, none of the countries from which those hijackers came is subject to the President’s current travel ban.
In the past, America has been a shining moral beacon for persecuted immigrants. The world has been inspired by the Statue of Liberty’s call to “send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” We have opened our door and our hearts to terrorized people from around the globe. Our help is needed more than ever now because the world is facing the largest displacement crisis on record. There are more than 21 million refugees worldwide, more than 5 million of which are registered from Syria alone. In FY 2016 the U.S. took in only 84,994 refugees. To date we have taken in a total of less than 20,000 refugees from Syria. In comparison, Turkey has registered 2.97 million Syrians and another 2 million are registered in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.
We have hardly done our part, considering that our invasion of Iraq contributed directly to a refugee crisis in that country and indirectly to the much greater crisis in Syria. The leadership of ISIS is composed largely of participants in the earlier insurgency in Iraq. Colin Powell said that “if you break it, you fix it.” Rather than helping to alleviate the mess that we helped to create, we seem to be turning our backs on a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.
The religious preference in the bill is an inappropriate and uninformed religious test. The refugees that are currently most in danger are from Sunni-majority Syria and they are being terrorized by the Alawite-minority government of Bashar al-Assad. Those people with the greatest need would get no preference. Proponents of H.R.2826 focus primarily on refugees from the Middle East but less than half of the refugees taken in by the U.S. last year were from the Near East and South Asia. About an equal number were Christians and Muslims.
As far as the 50,000 refugee limit in Mr. Labrador’s bill, that is simply not enough to fulfill our responsibility as a civilized nation. There are more than 50,000 Iraqis who endangered their lives by helping U.S. forces and who are desperately awaiting resettlement in the U.S. We are honor bound to give safe harbor to those individuals but that would take up the entire measly quota set by this bill.
This country, as great and warm-hearted as it is, has had momentary lapses in the past when it has treated immigrants badly because of anxiety stirred by fear-mongers. Irish people who fled the Potato Famine in 1845-1852 were subjected to great abuse, even as their sons fought valiantly to save the Union in the Civil War. After imported Chinese workers risked life and limb to build the western section of the transcontinental railroad, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 based on unfounded fears. The Immigration Act of 1924 was designed to hinder migrants from Italy, East European Jews, and East Asians and, again, was driven by the politics of fear. Japanese Americans on the West Coast were rounded up and imprisoned during World War II, while their sons fought and died for America in Europe.
As a Vietnam veteran with many South Vietnamese friends, I was personally incensed by the behavior of some of my fellow Americans after the fall of South Vietnam in April of 1975. They claimed that refugees from Vietnam would endanger our country and should be denied entry. The fear-mongers were wrong because we resettled close to a million Vietnamese refugees, who have been great citizens and contributed much to this country.
After each of these unfortunate episodes, we have looked back in shame and regretted giving in to fears stoked by demagogues. Let’s not let it happen again. H.R. 2826 targets refugees, who are not a terrorist risk, while failing to target home-grown, social-media-inspired persons, who do present a risk. The legislation is either ill-founded and uninformed, or it is intended as a vehicle for politicians to ride to political stardom at the expense of powerless and vulnerable refugees.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho Supreme Court chief justice and a former Idaho attorney general.