Reject refugees, lose American leadership

Richard Krugel

Oakland County is home to the majority of the Michigan Jewish community, an immigrant community which began to settle in Michigan over 150 years ago. Successive waves of immigration peaked during the auto industry boom of 1910-1920.

We are keenly aware of the times in American history when Jewish refugees were not welcome to American shores, beginning with the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which severely limited immigration from Eastern Europe, and later as refugee boats from Nazi Europe were denied landing.

The most infamous example of that was in 1939, when the United States refused to let the S.S. St. Louis dock, sending over 900 Jewish refugees back to Europe, where many died in Nazi concentration camps. That moment was a stain on the history of our country — a tragic decision made in a political climate of fear, suspicion, and antisemitism.

We must not return to those ugly times. That’s why anti-refugee sentiments that have recently surfaced in Oakland County are so distressing.

The world is now witnessing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. More than four million Syrians have fled their homeland to escape conflict and violence. An additional 12 million are displaced internally. They constitute only one part of the recent and massive refugee flow to Europe.

Although these refugees are desperate to escape persecution and violence, fear has contorted their plight — resulting in growing calls nationally and locally for a suspension of the U.S. refugee resettlement program. This is the case even though there have been nearly 800,000 admissions to the U.S. since 2001, and yet only a dozen terrorism-related cases.

The U.S. should have a robust role in providing haven for those fleeing persecution, and of the refugee resettlement program. Stepping back could jeopardize America’s moral leadership in the world.

Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted group of people who come to the United States. U.S. refugee admission is replete with extensive security measures in place, as it must be, to distinguish between those fleeing violence and those seeking to perpetrate harm. The rigorous and individualized security screenings involve the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Defense, and other agencies. The entire process can take two years.

Moreover, the United States decides which refugees to resettle. Because so few refugees in the world are resettled, the U.S. often chooses the most vulnerable, including refugees who cannot remain safely where they are. Reviewing this, one realizes that a complete stop to immigration is totally unjustified.

Jewish Americans know well what it is to be stigmatized and suspected as a class. The very real threat of radical Islam must not lead us to turn our back on refugees because of their religion or nation of origin. To do so would be to send a demoralizing and dangerous message to the world that the United States makes judgments about people based on these classifications.

The Detroit area’s Jewish community celebrates our home county of Oakland as a welcoming and diverse community. The Jewish community cherishes that reality, and works to maintain the welcome mat for those who flee war and persecution to begin new lives in our community.

That is the essence of American values, and also the realization of Jewish values, for as we read in Deuteronomy, “You should love the stranger as you love yourself; you have been strangers in Egypt.”

Dr. Richard Krugel is the president of the Jewish Community Relations Council.