THE BLOG
12/02/2015 10:45 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2016

Refugees Are Not the Problem, My Fellow Americans. Fear Is.

It's sad how quickly the world's pre-eminent refuge from war and persecution -- the United States of America -- can forget its roots: Except for Native Americans, we all of us descend from refugee or immigrant origins.

But fear can obliterate that common heritage instantly. Republicans especially seem quick to forget and to succumb to fear of the outsider, also to play the fear card.

Days after the ISIS-engineered attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, which killed 130 and wounded hundreds more, and in opposition to President Obama's proposal to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. in the coming year, 26 Republican governors -- half the governors in the nation -- declared they would not allow any Syrian refugees to settle in their states, even though they lack the authority to countermand federal action. Another four GOP governors (and one Democratic governor), while not barring these refugees, would impose increased screening.

And now, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to "pause" the entry of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S. Its sponsors claim the bill -- with an Orwellian title conceived in fear but promising safety: the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015 -- would "put in place the most robust national-security vetting process in history." Which we already have (about which, more later).

If we need proof that fear hardens the heart and makes one illogical, consider:

The refugees who are the target of these pusillanimous GOP reactions are the same refugees whose desperate trek from their failing states in the Middle East toward the refuge of Europe, often ending in drowning at sea, has broken the world's heart in images dominating the news for months. Rather than rushing to ISIS, as Republicans fear, they are fleeing for their lives from ISIS, seeking refuge from terror on all sides. Especially the Syrian refugees: These benighted souls are truly caught between a rock (a vicious president, Bashar al-Assad, who's killed more than 200,000 of his citizens) and a hard place (a vicious ISIS, or Islamic State).

Of course, terrorists mingling among the tides of refugees are a real possibility. But it is crucial -- crucial -- to distinguish the enemy from the innocent in the field. (The Syrian passport found on one of the dead ISIS killers in Paris, which ignited GOP opposition to Syrian refugees, has been confirmed by French authorities to be fake -- an instance of ISIS disinformation. The killers appear to be French nationals.)

Unable at all to distinguish enemy from refugee are the Republican presidential candidates, who are playing the fear card to a dangerous, unconstitutional, un-American, even vile degree -- with frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson the most outrageous.

Trump is agreeable to creating a national registry to track Muslims in the U.S., completely blind to the sad lessons of World War II and similar stigmatization of the Jews in Europe. Assailed for the proposal, Trump has yet to reject the idea, asserting, "We're going to have to do things that we never did before," -- an open-ended statement fraught with danger, like former Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion after 9/11 that we needed to go to the "dark side" and torture. Trump also asserts, "It's all about management." No, Mr. Trump, it's about values, ethics and remaining true to our immigrant and refugee origins.

Carson, not to be outdone in vilifying Muslims, compared them -- astonishingly -- to "rabid dogs" roaming the neighborhood, claiming it's simply a matter of intellect to do so. (Carson later claimed he was not speaking of Muslims generally, only of terrorists, but this video shows otherwise.)

Other GOP candidates covered themselves in ignominy. While Jeb Bush called out Trump for the Muslim registry -- properly connecting the dots between registry and internment camps -- he also proposed allowing only Christian Syrians into the U.S., not Muslims. Ted Cruz also advocates for Christian Syrians. Both men go against the American tenet forbidding religious tests. And now, Marco Rubio proposes closing not only mosques in the U.S., but any centers where Muslims get "inspired." These appeals go over with the GOP's white, angry, older, less-educated base.

Advantage: ISIS. For "leaders" committed to fortifying our national security, with this venom they supply ISIS with a potent recruitment tool: Via the social media it manipulates so well, ISIS can point to myriad examples of America's "war on Islam."

President Obama rightly condemns the Republican fear-mongering and Muslim-bashing. To be sure, leading conservative commentators have expressed dismay: David Brooks writes that Republicans have "stained themselves with refugee xenophobia" and Kathleen Parker describes GOP actions as "morally reprehensible."

Morally reprehensible or not, a majority of Americans agree with the Republican stand that Syrian refugees should be kept out of the U.S., according to two new polls: a bare majority -- 53% (Bloomberg) and 56% (NBC).

Of course this is not to suggest opening the entry gate to all, no questions asked. The vetting process for refugees into the U.S. must be rigorous -- and it is. Commenting on the present system while decrying the House's so-called SAFE Act, the New York Times in an editorial pointedly titled "Refugees from war aren't the enemy" states:

The bill disregards the complicated current process, which already requires that applicants' histories, family origins, and law enforcement and past travel and immigration records be vetted by national security, intelligence, law enforcement and consular officials.

This current vetting process is arduous, taking 18 to 24 months or more. And, it works: Of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since 9/11, only two (2) have been arrested on terrorism-related charges. The newly-enacted SAFE Act would make an already arduous system "untenable," says the White House, by requiring personal sign-off from the heads of the FBI, Homeland Security, and National Intelligence for each and every Syrian and Iraqi refugee.

(Parenthetically, all the anti-refugee venom is much ado about not very much: The U.S. has resettled only 1,854 Syrian refugees since 2012. Of more concern than refugees is the much less rigorously-vetted visa waiver program, for visitors and tourists, which last year allowed 20 million people from 38 countries into the U.S.)

Happily, to counter all the anti-refugee venom, Democrats have stepped forward. Democratic mayors of major cities -- including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore -- have issued a welcome to Syrian and Iraqi refugees who make it through the vetting processes. This list includes cities in conservative states: Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Santa Fe. Also, 16 Democratic governors have put out the welcome sign for Syrian and Iraqis. (Two GOP governors have joined them.)

And all the Democratic presidential candidates --Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley -- have taken strong and humane stands welcoming Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Given the present firestorm, it's clear refugees, immigration and how to counter ISIS will be a top issue in 2016 -- and a crucial test for Commander-in-Chief.

Not all Democrats struck a humane note, though: The mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, proposed internment camps for Syrian refugees, invoking the camps President Franklin Roosevelt, also a Democrat, established for Japanese-Americans during World War II -- a decision now universally deplored, for which the U.S. Government in 1988, under Republican Ronald Reagan, apologized and made reparations. Unlike today's Republicans, Roanoke's mayor apologized for giving offense to Muslims.

One can't dispute Republicans' concerns about terrorism's threat to national security, concerns which Democrats fully share, but one can argue how best to proceed -- and impugning Muslim refugees, again, plays into Islamic terrorism's hand. Impugning Muslims also prevents Republicans from facing up to their calamitous war in Iraq, one consequence of which is Syria's dissolution, all of which produced... the Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

It is to be hoped that Muslims, American and foreign, can hear the positive message amid all the slurs. But already Muslim-Americans report feeling a backlash and are girding for worse (also here). As the national spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Ibrahim Hooper, says of the avalanche of anti-Muslim venom, which he feels is worse than after 9/11: "What else can you compare this to except to prewar Nazi Germany?" Solidarity marches would be in order.

Finally, for perspective, two points: 1) In the aftermath of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris -- France's 9/11 as some in France are calling it -- France has committed to resettling 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years, to honor its "humanitarian duty." 2) It must be said about the U.S.: More dangerous than refugees, or even terrorists for that matter, is the gun mayhem in this country, which carnage has produced, at an average of over 30,000 deaths per year, over 406,000 deaths from guns since 2001. If only Republicans saw the peril within.

In the military, a first rule of engagement is called IFF -- Identify: friend or foe. In the mortal fear generated by the heinous terrorist attacks in Paris, too many Americans have misidentified the foe (ISIS) for the friend: the refugee. In doing so, we also misidentify ourselves and our origins: Once upon a time, we all were one of "them."

For other commentary, see here, here, here and here. For the economic contributions of Syrian and other refugees, see here.

Carla Seaquist's latest book, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is now out. An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."