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KENNEDY: What’s really driving Syrian refugee ban

November 28, 2015

Sheila Suess KennedyThose of us old enough to remember the old “Pogo” comic will also remember its most famous proclamation: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

So let’s talk about Syrian refugees and Republican governors, including Indiana’s Mike Pence, who responded to the terrorist attacks in Paris by announcing that Syrian refugees would not be welcome in their states.

Ignore, for purposes of this discussion the fact that these governors have no legal authority over immigration, that they undoubtedly know that, and are simply pandering to the GOP’s increasingly xenophobic base.

Ignore the fact that all of the terrorists were French citizens, including the three who lived in Belgium, and that the Syrian passport found near one of them was proven to be a fake.

Ignore the fact that—as Condoleezza Rice and others have noted—shutting out Syrian refugees is exactly what ISIS wants.

Ignore the fact that France—where the attacks occurred—immediately reaffirmed its acceptance of 30,000 Syrian refugees.

Ignore the fact that these refugees are fleeing the same terrorists that our politicians say they are trying to “protect us” from, and that the very small number (10,000) that the United States has agreed to resettle—the vast majority of whom are women, children and people over 60—have been undergoing 18-24 months of rigorous vetting.

Ignore all that. Does any sentient American really believe that the politicians demanding that we reject these refugees are relying on an assessment of the risks involved?

These are, by and large, the same politicians who are opposed to the most cursory of background checks for gun purchases, even for convicted felons and the mentally ill. They are perfectly willing to accept that risk, despite the fact that guns kill 32,000 Americans every year.

Apparently, Gov. Pence’s insistence on “absolute assurances” applies only to the “threat” posed by these particular refugees.

Islamophobia, anyone?

Since 9/11, hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants have been safely woven into the fabric of this country, including refugees from Bosnia. Most terrorist attacks in the United States have been perpetrated by homegrown religious extremists and racists. And the overall terrorism risk? In 2011, the National Counter-Terrorism Center calculated that Americans are as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists.

Let’s be candid. What motivates these politicians is neither prudence nor concern for citizens’ safety. When Jeb Bush suggests that perhaps we could resettle those who can prove they are Christians, when Donald Trump proposes a “registry” for Muslims (and perhaps armbands—shades of the Third Reich), when Ben Carson calls Muslims “rabid dogs,” and Chris Christie says he wouldn’t even accept 5-year-old orphans in New Jersey, it is pretty clear what this is really about.

In 1939, the United States turned away the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees, a significant number of them children. Nearly half of those sent back to Europe later perished in the ovens.

The officials refusing to allow the ship to dock argued that some of those aboard could be Nazis. Using rhetoric all too similar to what we’re hearing today, politicians stoked popular fears and legitimized bigotry against people who worshipped differently. Jacob Thorkelson, a representative from Montana, warned that Jewish migrants were part of an “invisible government,” an organization tied to the “communistic Jew” and to “Jewish international financiers.” It wasn’t our finest moment.

America—and Indiana—are better than this.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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