(Guest Column) — Earlier this week, following the terrorist attacks that struck Paris and in the face of the largest refugee crisis since WWII, Gov. Matt Mead joined governors from across the nation in asking President Obama to “halt the refugee process until it provides the security promised to and demanded by all Wyoming and United States citizens.” In a press release, Mead stated, “No state should have to endure the threat of terrorists entering our borders.”
There are several concerning aspects to Mead’s statements. First and foremost, as of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Wyoming was the only state in the United States that did not participate in the federal refugee resettlement program. That means Wyoming is the only state in the nation that does not directly receive refugees who have been designated as such by the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees and vetted by the U.S. government for the chance to begin their lives anew, free from the threat of harm and persecution.
While the history of Wyoming’s exceptionalism in this realm is unclear, Mead has put the brakes on any efforts for Wyoming to join this program in response to constituent critiques about the “threats” refugees might pose to the people and culture of the state. It is perplexing, then, that Mead felt compelled to nationally weigh-in on a life-saving humanitarian program in which, to date, Wyoming does not actively participate.
Second, Mead’s statements mistakenly conflate refugees with terrorists following the discovery that one of the Paris attackers was identified as a migrant to Europe from Syria. This sentiment is an oversimplification of the complex security situation caused by the refugee crisis in Europe and falls into the trap of what UNHCR has termed “demoniz[ing] refugees as a group.” It fails to account for the fact that several of the Paris attackers were Belgian and French nationals. It fails to account for the fact that refugees themselves are fleeing acts of terrorism and violence based on their religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership in particular social groups. The CATO Institute has astutely calculated that the terrorist threat from individuals admitted to the United States as refugees is “hyperbolically over-exaggerated,” noting:
“Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States and none was successfully carried out. That is one terrorism-planning conviction for a refugee for every 286,543 of them who have been admitted. To put that in perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.”
Moreover, equating all refugees with terrorists fails to acknowledge the rigorous screening processes that refugees undergo prior to being resettled in the United States. David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, has stated “There are many ways to come to the United States. Comparatively the refugee resettlement program is the most difficult, short of swimming the Atlantic.” There are at least five points at which security checks are run on refugees who are candidates for resettlement, involving over 12 to 15 different agencies of the U.S. government. These background and security checks take 18 to 24 months to carry out. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security conducts an additional layer of screening for Syrian applicants in order to determine any national security risks. Refugees undergo the highest level of security checks and scrutiny of any type of foreign national to come to the United States.
So what is the way forward?
Participation in the international refugee resettlement program is vital to the United States, because of U.S. legal obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention and its corresponding 1967 Protocol. It’s also vital because refugees are a part of our nation’s success story. Some of our most enterprising Americans were themselves refugees, including Albert Einstein, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google. Refugees largely achieve self-sufficiency shortly after their arrival in the U.S. and take advantage of the safety of their new homes to become meaningful contributors to their communities, states and the nation. One year after their arrival, refugees are eligible to apply for a green card, and in five years they are eligible for naturalization. In short, refugees are citizens in waiting.
Notwithstanding the legal and economic aspects of refugee resettlement, our nation has a moral duty to provide the chance to begin again for some of the world’s 60 million individuals who have been displaced by persecution and conflict. Wyoming’s moral duty to participate in this program is no less. People have been finding safety from persecution inside our borders since the time of our nation’s founding. The freedom of political opinion, religion and association are the values on which this country was built and it is our corresponding duty to avail those freedoms to those in the world who need them most. Now is not the time to turn our backs on the few, less than one-half of 1 percent of all refugees in the world, who endure life-threatening journeys and hardship to make it to the United States.
Can we ever 100 percent guarantee that migrants coming to our country will not attempt to harm people living inside the United States? Of course not. But is the risk worth it? History tells us yes. In 1939, the U.S. turned back to the Holocaust a ship filled with Jewish refugees seeking safety, and in 1942, 100,000 Japanese Americans were interned out of fear and ignorance. Taking the risk is the price of leadership and standing up for what is morally right and legally sound when confronted with a world beset by crisis. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt during the 1939 refugee crisis, “We must not let ourselves be moved by fear.”
— Suzan M. Pritchett is an assistant professor and the Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Wyoming College of Law. In early 2016, she will be taking part in a number of talks and panels around the state sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council on Wyoming’s role in the global refugee crisis.
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