Let's Actually Live Our American Values


By Maggie Neilson

I genuinely believe that human beings wake up each morning wanting to be good people, to do the right thing. Some of us even have lofty - maybe even cliché - aspirations of leaving the world a better place than we found it. Which is why it is baffling to witness U.S. leaders callously turn away refugees.

In the aftermath of the deplorable Paris terrorist attacks, more than 20 U.S. governors suspended acceptance of Syrian refugees, citing national security concerns. Their position came after intelligence reports revealed that at least one of the Paris attackers entered Europe among the current wave of migrants after falsely identifying himself as a Syrian refugee (all attackers have since been identified as French and Belgian nationals). Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to suspend the Obama Administration's plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees to our country and intensify the screening process.

Accepting Syrian refugees is not a safety threat but rather an opportunity to demonstrate our American values of compassion toward vulnerable people. The U.S. is a great nation with a rich history of helping those who arrive at our borders seeking safety. From 1934 to 1945, Americans rescued unaccompanied Jewish children fleeing the Holocaust and placed them with foster families and relatives. During the early 1960s, the US accepted Cuban refugees seeking shelter and reunited them with relatives and friends. One of my employees - one of those ridiculously smart, savvy, hard-working millennials with more potential than I can adequately describe - arrived here with her family in 2000 as refugees from the Second Congo War. Vietnam, Iraq, Korea, Somalia - in just my lifetime, the list of times the U.S. has done the right thing is long.

The current crisis is the same - innocent people are fleeing Syrian violence and coming to the U.S. simply seeking safety. We cannot watch the greatest humanitarian crisis since WWII and let our leaders toss aside our legacy in favor of xenophobic fearmongering.

The U.S. is fully capable of vetting refugees; our system includes repeated high-level security checks, biometric and medical screenings, and an interview with the Department of Homeland Security. The process takes 18 to 24 months. No other person entering America is subjected to this level of scrutiny. The hardest way to get into the U.S. is as a refugee. Due in part to this robust screening processes, refugees have historically been unlikely terrorist threats - 750,000 refugees have been admitted into the U.S. since 9/11 and none have been arrested on domestic terrorist charges. NOT ONE. According to State Department officials, only 2% of Syrian refugees in the U.S. are military-aged men without family. The majority of resettled refugees are women, children and families - all survivors of violence and torture.

Despite the disdain I have for those who are demonizing refugees and spreading fear, I am inspired by the strong actions others are taking, from President Obama planning to veto the legislation preventing his program to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees next year; to my home state, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee's NY Times op-ed; to the moms donating their baby carriers to help parents making the dangerous, uncertain trek in search of peace.

I live in LA now, a place that creates the entertainment we all enjoy. When we watch stories about people in unfair situations; we tend to empathize, to root for the character, and to think those in positions to help should do so.

Yet these Syrian people - actual human beings with names, families, stories and dreams who just want to live peaceful, productive lives - they deserve our empathy, too. If we knew them and their stories, we would want to help them, not to turn them away to face more unimaginable danger and violence.

As Americans, we should reflect on our values and history, and really ask ourselves what type of people we want to be. Are we the resilient, compassionate global superpower that did the right thing in a challenging time, or are we the country that allowed fear and rhetoric to drive us to take actions that will permanently scar not only our history books, but our moral fabric? When you step back and look at this as a human being, the answer becomes astonishingly clear.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post