COMMENTARY: U.S. has a humanitarian obligation to assist Syrian refugees

Amid the controversy over whether the United States should accept refugees from the civil war in Syria, there has been much irrational and mean-spirited discussion. Americans seem to forget our own history when we turn nativist. Such jingoistic, fearmongering diatribes need to be countered with the facts and with empathy.

Initially, the question of whether America should allow refugees to settle here is already answered by past patterns and U.S. actions in Syria. The civil war there has claimed almost 300,000 lives. It has displaced more than 7 million persons within Syria and caused 5 million to flee their homeland. Many of those who have opposed the Assad regime have been arrested and tortured.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Meanwhile, the United States has been active in bombing, drone strikes, and Special Forces operations in Syria for more than one year. According to State Department, Homeland Security Department, and intelligence sources, the U.S. has already accepted and resettled 2,500 Syrians from the conflict, of which 10 have come to Delaware. Half of the refugees accepted by the U.S. have been children.

Another complaint about allowing Syrian refugees to come to our shores deals with possibility of terrorists mixing among them. That is highly unlikely. First, only 2 percent of current resettled refugees are single young men. Further, the protocol already in place for approving refugees is quite comprehensive and lengthy.

According to immigration experts, it takes between 18 months and two years to approve such requests. The fear that terrorists may use refugee status to stage attacks against American interests is unfounded. Moreover, the fact that America has accepted refugees from war-torn nations such as Somalia demonstrates that just because terrorist groups operate in certain countries does not mean they will succeed in attacking America.

An additional objection to accepting Syrian refugees is based on American federalism. Although the national government controls immigration and refugee resettlement, the states actually house these persons within their borders. At present, 31 of 50 state governors are balking at accepting refugees. There is certainly a need for the federal government to better explain the process and to furnish requisite resources to these states, but outright rejection of the refugees is heartless, inconsistent with agreements among Western allies, and unconstitutional. It is contrary to constitutional precepts because Article VI of the latter document bestows supremacy upon the national government as long as it is not violating other provisions.

One U.S. senator — a Republican candidate for president — has proposed only accepting Christian refugees. However, just as the Constitution forbids religious tests as a condition for public office, so religion should play no part in who among the refugees is approved for resettlement. We are fighting ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorists of any claimed religion, not those peaceful persons who practice the Islamic faith.

In the recent past, the U.S. has accepted refugees, claims for asylum, and requests for citizenship from a number of war-torn areas, including thousands of persons who fled South Vietnam as the Vietnam War ended. Those folks have assimilated into American culture quite well, as have others. There is every reason to believe that Syrian refugees will do the same. We don’t call ourselves “the melting pot for immigrants” for nothing.

The United States cannot be a participant in fighting against the Assad regime on the one hand and deny entry to Syrian refugees on the other. We must not let the Paris attacks divert us from our humanitarian obligation.

Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He was a previous board member of the United Nations Association of the United States of America-Delaware Division. Dr. Hoff has taught and published extensively on international issues.

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