Like all people of good will, world-wide, I was outraged by the brutal attacks on Paris this past Friday night. The terrorists who committed these murders claim to have acted the name of Islam, but I do not know any Muslims (including the Muslim students who have been in my classes over the years, the Muslims who were my neighbors, the Muslim professors and journalists to whom I speak online, or the imam who led the mosque in my hometown, and with whom I served on an interfaith committee) who subscribe to the version of Islam practiced by these extremists. Unlike all the Muslims I know, these proponents of the so-called Islamic State are totally without ethics: in Iraq and Syria, they believe it is okay to torture and rape women and enslave children; in other countries, like France and Belgium, they believe it is okay to murder civilians. Some sources report that Le Bataclan was intentionally chosen by the terrorists because the owners were Jewish and had held pro-Israel events there in the past. Whether or not that is true (other sources say the owners had long since sold the concert hall), innocent people enjoying a night of dancing and rock music were killed, as were people having dinner at a restaurant. Online news reports say supporters of the so-called Islamic State rejoiced, and called the attackers heroic. The rest of us see things quite differently: these are the lowest kind of human beings, and if there is a hell, I hope they spend eternity there.
But since it's election season, the political rhetoric has been all too predictable. This is especially true for certain Republican presidential candidates, who are taking the opportunity to blame President Obama, while calling for war, and demanding that thousands of American troops be sent to Syria and Iraq. And of course, some of these candidates are insisting yet again that immigrants are the problem (yes, one Syrian passport was found among the Paris attackers, but police have said they believe it was a fake; the terrorists themselves were all from France and Belgium, and by most accounts, they were not immigrants at all). But using the theory that immigrants are causing chaos wherever they go, these politicians are insisting that no refugees from Syria be allowed to enter the United States. In fact, 26 American governors (25 of whom are Republican, and 1 of whom is a Democrat running for re-election in a purple state) immediately asserted that no Syrian refugees are welcome in their states.
While we can have honest disagreements about whether President Obama has or hasn't done a good job with foreign policy, and while we can debate whether there should be Americans fighting and dying in Iraq and Syria, I am totally puzzled by the assertion that NO Syrian refugees should be allowed to enter the US. Contrary to Donald Trump's claim that many thousands of Syrian refugees have been given permission to come to America, the real number is far smaller: in the past year, only 1,869 have settled here. And contrary to myths that these immigrants (like all immigrants) are potentially dangerous, there is little credible evidence that immigrants commit more crimes than non-immigrants; in fact, there is evidence that immigrants commit far fewer over all, since they are generally happy to be living in their new country and don't want to cause trouble. (Lest you think I'm showing my "liberal bias," one of my sources is research from a conservative scholar, published in the Wall Street Journal, which is certainly not a liberal newspaper. You can read that article here, and there are many others like it. http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-mythical-connection-between-immigrants-and-crime-1436916798?alg=y )
It's also worth noting that it's not easy to get permission to settle in America. The majority of immigrants, including those from Iraq and Syria, are subjected to several years (!) of vetting, and there is a rigorously process before the US government decides to grant permission. So, I was especially saddened several days ago to read about the Syrian family who had finally, after three years of waiting, gotten permission to move to the US; they were scheduled to be relocated to Indianapolis, IN, and all the arrangements had been made. But just before they were supposed to arrive, the mother and father and their four year old child were told that Governor Mike Pence no longer wanted them there; he was refusing to allow them to settle in his state after all. Fortunately for the family, the state of Connecticut has agreed to take them in, and they will begin their new life in the city of New Haven. But the entire episode seemed wrong to me. It may have played well for Governor Pence and his constituents, but to suddenly roll up the welcome mat and close the door for no apparent reason other than politics is troubling.
Unfortunately, it's nothing new. Back in the late 1800s, America refused to allow Chinese people to emigrate; in the 1920s, there were stringent quotas to restrict immigrants from such places as Japan and eastern Europe; in the 1930s and early 1940s, America restricted Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis. And with each new generation, there have been quotas on other immigrant populations too. The groups being restricted may have changed, but the reasoning remains the same: fear that these immigrants are potential criminals, or that there will be too many of them and we won't be able to handle the flood of desperate refugees, or these days, that they will turn out to be terrorists. And although there's no evidence the family Governor Pence suddenly decided he didn't want was dangerous, refusing to admit Syrian refugees (or others from Muslim-majority countries) gets loud applause when Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or other candidates say it.
I understand that America cannot open its doors to everyone, and that there have to be some common-sense rules. But supposedly, we pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, a land of opportunity, a beacon of hope for those who are fleeing persecution. Political rhetoric aside, most people who want to come here are not evil and they do not have evil intentions. Yet according to the current political rhetoric (which sounds suspiciously like the political rhetoric from past generations), we should turn away as many immigrants as possible. In the past, it was the Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews we didn't want... today it's Hispanics and people from Muslim countries. But instead of the same old slogans about "securing our borders" or "keeping out the terrorists," I keep hoping that members of congress will stop posturing and sloganeering and develop a sensible plan, something that makes it possible for new immigrants to come here and feel welcome, while preventing the few "bad apples" from spoiling things for everyone else. I realize that during election season, the chances of congress actually working on an immigration plan are unlikely. After all, partisanship and polarization are worse than ever, and even the few moderates who have expressed ideas about immigration policy don't seem able to get any agreement. And yet, despite the challenges, I wish they'd keep trying: given how much we are paying our senators and representatives, wouldn't it be nice if they surprised us and came up with something useful?