Snyder takes a too-hasty retreat from Syrian refugees

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Given the swiftness of Gov. Rick Snyder’s response to the terrorist attacks on Paris, you might have assumed that planeloads of Syrian refugees were wheels-down at Detroit Metro.

Michigan’s proudly pro-immigration governor has in the past taken a stand on Syrian refugees: He stepped up months ago, agreeing to work with the Obama administration to settle Syrian refugees in Michigan — a humanitarian effort that could also energize communities like Detroit with new people.

Ordinarily, Snyder is, by temperament, a slow decider; he rarely rushes to judgment. But Sunday, he was in the stop-in-the-name-of-security vanguard as he neatly folded up the welcome mat for Syrian refugees, issuing a statement that “our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents.”

To the world, it was a resonant statement: the Washington Post headlined the decision of Snyder and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s similar “rush to slam (the) door” on Syrian immigrants. Intended or not, the decision played out as a reaction to fear-mongers, including state Rep. Gary Glenn, who had called on the governor to shut down Syrian immigration hours before. Glenn’s language — calling potential “ jihadists masked as ‘refugees’ who’d love to bring suicide vests and grenades to Ford Field or Fisher Theatre or Great Lakes Crossing” — trafficked in our worst fears.

Yes, fear is relevant here. We call suicide bombers terrorists because of the emotions they detonate; their blasts inspire paranoia and distrust, the emotional fallout that radiates around the world. Fear is their international shrapnel.

It is the task of our political leaders to protect our safety, but not to appear craven, or politically motivated, or precipitously reactive in a moment of crisis.

In Michigan, Syrian community leaders were disturbed by the governor’s statement because for months they had been buying property, storing furniture, preparing neighborhoods for the resettlement of refugee families. Dr. Yahya Basha, a Syrian-born radiologist and owner of Basha Diagnostics, said he respects the governor but views his decision as “unfortunate” and “reactive.”

“We do not want to penalize the victims of ISIS who have left destroyed neighborhoods and fled for their lives,” said Basha, who came to Detroit 40 years ago, and employs 100 people in his three medical centers.

Osama Siblani, the publisher of the Arab American News, pointed out that, from a technical standpoint, the governor can’t stop immigration. “If they move first to California, a year later they’ll be in Dearborn,” he said. But Siblani said he worried that nobody, including the governor, has any idea how the U.S. can effectively screen Syrian refugees, given our diplomatic freeze with Syria’s regime.

“We’ve seen only a small trickle of Syrian refugees to date because of the intense security precautions,” said Steve Tobocman, the founder of Global Detroit, an economic development initiative to bring immigrants to Michigan. “Closing your doors to the world is not the solution.”

Closing the door is an emotional reaction most of us intuitively understand. And playing to fear in an election year is an always-popular political strategy. By late Monday, Sen. Rand Paul had drafted a law to halt visas to countries with “jihad” movements. Snyder’s peer group of governors calling for Syrian refugee moratoriums had risen to nearly two dozen. Fear — the dark underbelly of American politics — was proving both infectious and politically useful.