Rev. Jackson: Welcome Syrian refugees to Mich.

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Syrian refugees should be welcomed in Michigan, and turning them away would be an affront to American values, said members of a panel on Syrian refugees headlined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson on Sunday.

Governors who reject Syrian refugees “are playing on our fears,” Jackson said at the town hall meeting at the Lebanese-American Heritage Club. “We must be on the right side of history.”

The panel comes after governors across the United States, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, called for a halt to accepting refugees after the Paris terrorist attacks earlier this month. Snyder said the state would put efforts to relocate Syrian refugees on hold “until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes a full review of security clearances and procedures.”

In Oakland County, County Executive L. Brooks Patterson wrote a letter to Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman, urging the city to stop its efforts to place Syrian refugees locally.

“All eyes are on Dearborn” as the refugee debate goes on, said Bankole Thompson, the panel moderator and a Detroit News columnist, referring to the city as among those in southeast Michigan with a large Arab-American population.

But that focus on Dearborn is a problem, said Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab-American News, aiming criticism at the media.

“Every time something bad happens, the media doesn’t have to come take our pulse in Dearborn,” Siblani said. “Usually, it’s the wrong pulse. Can you give us a break?”

Siblani said that Dearborn’s Arab-American community faces a twin danger when terror groups like ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, are in the news.

“We are afraid of being killed by ISIS, and by those who think we are ISIS,” Siblani said.

Jackson was joined by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit; U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Fayrouz Saad, director of the office of immigration affairs for the city of Detroit; Siblani ; Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP; and Nabih Ayad, chairman of the Arab-American Civil Rights League.

“All Lives Matter: Syrian refugees in peril” was co-hosted by Jackson’s RainbowPUSH coalition and the Arab-American Civil Rights League.

Anthony called the recent anti-refugee sentiments “an issue that should not be an issue.” America has always embraced people from other places, he said.

“That’s what the lady with the lamp, out in the bay, says,” Anthony said, referring to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in New York City.

Conyers said America should welcome 100,000 Syrian refugees. Taking in 10,000, he said, would be too few for a self-proclaimed nation of immigrants. He also defended the federal process for verifying refugee status and security risks.

“Refugees are subject to the strongest vetting that exists,” Conyers said. “The FBI, State Department, CIA, and Homeland Security all check them out. Any one of them can veto” a refugee’s entry.

Detroit is in “weekly, at least, if not daily” contact with the federal government on refugee issues, Saad said.

“Detroit wants to open its doors,” Saad said. The city hopes to welcome 50 families per year for the next one to three years, she said.

Dingell said turning refugees away in their time of need is “allowing ISIS to win. ...We will not let them take the soul of this country.”

Carmen Kelly told the panel she came over from Colombia in 1975 on a student visa to study chemistry.

Kelly said she was generally well-received, but “I know how hard it is” being new in America. Kelly said she couldn’t catch a bus when she first came here because her English wasn’t good enough to communicate with the driver. Americans, she said, have been “kind, but not that patient.”

Syrians, Kelly said, “need a place to be.” Michigan, she said, should be one of those places.