Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that he will seek a temporary halt of Syrian refugees coming into the state is a sharp rebuke of Maryland’s long and rich history of successfully resettling the displaced and the disowned. While this history has not always been free of controversy, it is clear that we hold as a value the idea that people from other nations — especially those who seek shelter for themselves and their children against war and terror — can find a home here. But in a climate of fear, fueled by events on another continent, these refugees are being treated as scapegoats. This is the wrong approach for Maryland, and it’s not beneficial to the United States.
With the revelation that one of the suspected perpetrators of last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris may have entered into Europe from Syria posing as a refugee, many American politicians have seized on this moment to call for a closure of our borders to Syrian refugees. These politicians are using the tragic events as an opportunity to further the idea that refugees are a security threat, a narrative that has very little evidence in the U.S.
While the federal government has called for 10,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled in the U.S. in FY2015-16, to date the country has accepted less than 2,200 of the more than 4 million displaced outside Syria in the last four years. Through mid-September, International Rescue Committee in Baltimore has helped 26 Syrian refugees make Maryland their home this year.
The latest terrorist attacks have reinvigorated the idea of refugees as a security threat. But of more than 750,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. in the past 14 years, only two, of non-Syrian descent, have been arrested on terrorism charges.
While the refugee community is being falsely labeled a hotbed for terrorism, the actual low number of suspects in this community is partly due to the complex and stringent process refugees must pass in order to enter the country. Many people believe it’s easy to get in – it most assuredly is not: The process includes several desk reviews and in-person interviews involving multiple federal agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense.
The intake process for refugees takes on average 12-18 months. For Syrian refugees, it can take more than three years to complete, given the difficulties of verifying information. By any measure, refugee resettlement is not an easy or quick path into the United States. So, logically, it is not a route likely to be traveled by individuals seeking to harm the country. Moreover, the laborious process administered by the government aids in weeding out those who may be a threat.
Politicians and the administration should ensure that the processes in which refugees are accepted are rigorous and routine, maintaining the values and security of the country. This may include not admitting those who lack the proper background information, or who may have associations that are perceived as a security risk.
Where we are going wrong, especially with Syrian refugees, is to connect in the public mind what happened in Europe with what refugees have endured. When we link terror to those who are trying to get away from terror – this simply does not align with our nation’s values, and should not affect our policy on helping those seeking refuge from a dangerous civil war.
Maryland, and especially Baltimore, has maintained a welcoming environment for immigrants. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s initiative to grow Baltimore with an increasing immigrant population, and her recent reaffirmation that Syrian refugees are welcome in the city, demonstrates the role that Baltimore plays in ensuring refugee resettlement. Maryland has a rich history of resettlement of refugees; the Maryland Office of Refugees and Asylees has assisted more than 40,000 refugees with needed services in making Maryland their home. These efforts are to be lauded, not turned aside.
What are the lessons of the attacks in Paris? Are they a primer in fear of refugees, a reminder of those dark periods in our history in which we were cruel to those who were seeking safety from tyranny and bloodshed? Or are they a reigniting of a discussion about our values as a nation, and as a state?
We should think before we decide to scapegoat refugees. We should try to understand their plight. We should have some faith in the security systems that have successfully ensured our security since 9/11. And we should remember who we are — as Americans and Marylanders.
Jennica A. Larrison is an assistant professor of global affairs and human security at the University of Baltimore. Her email is [email protected].