Public Comment


Jagjit Singh
Wednesday November 25, 2015 - 06:56:00 PM

It’s been four long years since the people of Syria rose up to demand democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. Bashar al-Assad’s response was to brutally repress the protesters, pushing his country into a civil war that has attracted local and foreign fighters, among them the terrorists of ISIS.

This long and bloody conflict has already resulted in the death of a quarter of a million people, displaced 8 million civilians internally, and caused another 4 million to flee. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have responded taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees, and while Germany opened its doors to them, the United States has accepted only 2174 since 2012.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, Donald Trump and the governors in 31 states have stoked up fears and called for an immediate halt to accepting any additional migrants. Largely ignored in the debate is the role the United States played in creating the crisis. The 2003 invasion of Iraq on false pretenses was the catalyst that led to the creation of ISIS from whom the refugees are fleeing. 

A bill by House Republicans restricts Iraqi and Syrian refugees from resettling here. In a perfect world we should have paid billions in reparations to Iraq and Afghanistan for destabilizing their country and creating the refugee crisis. 

Jihadist infiltration is a legitimate concern but the tight vetting process should prevent them from entering. It is ironic that Americans are dying at the rate of 100 a day but an adequate vetting process for the possession of hand guns remains elusive. 

The current hysteria draws historical parallels the country faced in the 1930s, when Jewish refugees sought refuge here. Case Western Reserve University history professor, Peter Schulman, recently tweeted a Fortune Magazine poll question from 1939 that asked, "Should the U.S. government permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to seek sanctuary from Germany?" A staggering 61 percent of respondents at the time said NO. Among those who were denied were Anne Frank and her family. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, made desperate attempts to enter the United States and Cuba without success. 

The ordeal faced by Jewish refugees during and after World War II was portrayed in the 1976 film, "Voyage of the Damned." The film is based on the true story of the 1939 voyage of the SS St. Louis, which sailed for Havana from Hamburg Germany carrying 900 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. The Cuban Government denied entry to the passengers, so the ship made its way to the United States, where the Coast Guard delivered the following ominous message: 

SS ST. LOUIS CREWMAN: “Attention, Captain St. Louis. You are violating U.S. territorial limits. Do not approach any closer. Do not attempt to land. You will not, repeat, not be permitted to dock at any United States port. Acknowledge”. 

SS ST. LOUIS CAPTAIN: “Signal, message received and acknowledged”. 

Consumed with fear and despair a number of people jumped off the sides of the ship and drowned. The remaining German Jews who were shipped back to Germany and died in concentration camps. 

Arguments were made at the time to keep out the Jews stoking up feelings of bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism; they were perceived to be an ideological threat and posed a danger that Nazi agents may have infiltrated among them. 

Echoes of those arguments are heard in the present day narrative regarding the threat of terrorists infiltrating among the Syrians. What is most disturbing is not what Donald Trump when he vehemently opposed Syrian refugees entering the United States, but the wild cheers that accompanied his racist comments. This hostility and racism has been experienced by most early immigrants - the Irish, Poles, Chinese, Catholics, Indians and many other groups. In every case such fears have proven to be completely unfounded. There is a much greater risk from home grown terrorists who have easy access to guns. 

In spite of the Paris attacks, President Francois Hollande declared that France will continue to honor its commitment to take in a minimum of 20,000 Syrian refugees, over the next two years. 

In the ensuing debate, it is time to remember that America is a nation of refugees and we should act with compassion and humanity to honor Emma Lazarus’s famous words, chiseled on the Statue of Liberty: “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.” 

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