Michigan should host refugee summit

Saeed A. Khan

The four year-old war in Syria has displaced more than half its population of 22 million. Nearly 13 million people have been uprooted, 8 million within the country and 5 million who have fled Syria altogether: 2 million to Turkey, and a million each to Jordan and Lebanon. Another million Syrians are trying to migrate to Europe and North America. Despite the trauma suffered in its capital, France has declared it will welcome 30,000 refugees. But here at home, our government’s pledge to accept 10,000 refugees, barely 1 percent of the absorption rate to Europe, has been met with backlash by the public and politicians alike.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s retreat from his prior support for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in this state is disappointing. The Arab and Muslim community and those committed to refugee relief on humanitarian grounds feel betrayed, while a host of politicians have seized on the governor’s decision to affirm their opposition to refugees as well. Another 30 governors oppose Syrian refugees settling in their states; presidential candidates, mayors, city council members and county executives have similarly chosen to follow suit. While Snyder may have acted out of concern for the reliability of the federal government’s refugee screening process, and some of the other opponents to refugees may share his anxiety, it appears that nativist, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim prejudices may play an equal, if not stronger, impetus to tar the refugees as potential terrorists and bar them from the country.

Fear is often the function of the unknown or the unsubstantiated; leadership is best equipped to dispel both. It is important to remember that Michigan has been the decades-long destination for people the world over fleeing the persecution of the Holocaust, the oppression of the Cold War, the devastation of the Vietnam conflict, the horrors of the Balkan War, the chaos in the Middle East and, yes, the barbarism of the Islamic State. Those who came to Michigan with little or nothing have uplifted themselves and the state as a whole. Anxiety over the arrival of Syrian refugees is due in part to xenophobia and bigotry.

Facts matter. Since 9/11, not a single refugee to the United States has committed any act of domestic terrorism. The vetting process for refugees is long, 18 to 24 months, and is no guarantee for approval. According to the White House, refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of U.S.-bound travelers. The screening process includes both biographic and biometric information being passed through several intelligence agency and law enforcement databases to verify identification and background. Currently, applicants from the Middle East, especially young males, receive even greater scrutiny, the details of which are classified. Only upon a fully satisfactory, unambiguous determination of legitimacy and safety does the applicant receive approval for entry to the United States.

Refugee admittance is solely a federal issue, according to the Constitution and long-standing law. There is little state and local officials can do to prevent refugees from coming to their states once admitted by the federal government. Freedom of mobility within the United States is a fundamental right for citizen, visitor and refugee alike. Some may try to assert their power and prejudice by placing obstacles in the way of the process, forgetting that those escaping mayhem and murder have experienced far worse than purveyors of petty politics.

Snyder must allay the public’s concern about the government’s ability to protect us. The suggestion for him to convene a refugee summit, inviting the relevant federal agencies, state and local stakeholders and other governors, is an excellent gambit to restore public confidence in the government’s ability to screen refugees adequately and to affirm Michigan’s traditional commitment to welcome them to the state.

We are a nation of refugees. As Americans mark Thanksgiving, we commemorate the original refugees, pilgrims seeking sanctuary from the persecution they faced in Europe. Syrian refugees are merely the latest group to seek our state’s safety and security. Michiganians can offer both without risking either.

Saeed A. Khan teaches Middle East and Islamic history, politics and culture at Wayne State University, where he is also a fellow at the Center for the Study of Citizenship.