By Gabriela Monico and Helen Lawrence
Last Friday a series of horrible events unfolded in Paris. 129 innocent lives were lost. Hundreds more injured. We mourn the loss of lives and are saddened by the truly terrifying nature of these attacks. Worryingly, however, we quickly see anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric dominating much of the public discussion. This scapegoating of broad, largely extremely vulnerable segments of the world’s population for very complex world problems is, firstly, cruel and, secondly, it is inaccurate. Not only does this hatred towards Muslims, refugees and immigrants fail to solve the complicated issue at hand, but rather it plays into the hands of actual terrorist groups.
Hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians, Libyans, Eritreans, Yemenis, and others around the world are fleeing the same terror that hit Paris, but that is unfortunately a very regular part of their lives. For many, their way of life, their history, their national treasures have all been destroyed. They are not seeking to replace our way of life with theirs, but simply seeking refuge to survive in the United States and Europe.
In Syria, since 2011, millions of people have fled from their homes after mass murder, enslavement (including sexual slavery), and even genocide. This has resulted in internal displacement in Syria and refugee camps there and in neighboring countries. The conditions there are horrible and not getting any better. So in order to escape these circumstances hundreds of thousands of people have decided to do the most of human of things, leave. Leave in search of a safer place. Immigrate.
Things are likely to get worse in Syria before they get better. There will likely be more deaths of innocent civilians and larger numbers of Syrian refugees. The President of France, Francois Hollande, has vowed a “merciless” response to the terrorist attacks. Russia has just dropped the most bombs in Syria this week than it has in decades, not since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There are many examples of compassion in which people and their governments have taken in refugees and provided them with shelter. In fact, France is still vowing to honor its commitment to take 30,000 Syrian refugees. Yet, irresponsible grandstanding and hatred-fueled reactions by politicians to terrorism are now increasingly threatening that basic decency and the values that define the United States.
The House of Representatives just passed a bill that restricts the entry of Syrian refugees, a process which is already very elusive to Syrians because of lengthy, complex background checks. Presidential candidates like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have declared that the U.S. should only grant refugee status to Syrian Christians and not Muslims. At least 31 state governors in the U.S. have issued statements pledging to block Syrian refugees from entering their states even when state governments do not have the legal authority to carry out those plans. This is happening even after the Obama administration pledged to accept only 10,000 Syrian refugees, a very small fraction in comparison to the large number of refugees that other countries are opening their doors to. Clearly, anger and fear towards IS (Islamic State) is turning into hatred and intolerance towards refugees, Muslims, and particularly Syrians. But intolerance is not the answer to this problem. In fact, xenophobia is what has pushed some marginalized youth in France and Europe to seek out extremist ideology and groups like IS. An entire community should not be collectively punished for the acts of an extremist minority.
Further punishing refugees by showing them the ugly face of xenophobia, hatred, and closing economic opportunities to them on top of the trauma suffered back home will only make it harder for these people to find food and shelter, get back on their feet, and reclaim the dignity that we all deserve as human beings.
The Syrian refugee crisis is officially the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. “Today’s 3-year-old Syrian orphan, it seems, is 1939’s German Jewish child.” Out of 4 million Syrian refugees, the vast majority are women and children. They are fleeing the same terror that showed itself in Paris last Friday. There is a similar dynamic happening now in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), where thousands of people are fleeing their countries due to gang violence. In El Salvador alone, one person is murdered every hour, making it one of the most violent countries in the world. Just like Syrian refugees, thousands of Central Americans risk their lives to seek refuge in a safe place, away from the violence at home. Many of these women and children are detained in for-profit prisons. They are fighting their deportations and trying to navigate a bureaucratic and complex immigration system in the United States with little to no legal assistance.
Denying shelter to refugees, regardless of their country of origin, does not reflect American values. As Vice President Joe Biden declared yesterday, “the only way terrorism can win is if they cause you to change your values.” The United States, is a nation of immigrants, we pride ourselves on it. We should set an example to the world and maintain our commitment to welcome refugees fleeing persecution. Let’s help these refugees reclaim their dignity and make policies guided by the strength of our values, not our fears.
This December, our office, as part of a team of 5 pro-bono attorneys and one paralegal, will travel to the largest immigration detention center in the country, located in Dilley, Texas. The team will represent women and children who have fled extreme violence in their home countries and are seeking asylum in the United States. Consider making a donation that would help cover the team’s basic costs of travel and living. For more information, please visit our fundraising site.