As we mourn the loss of Elie Wiesel, who described himself as “a witness… having survived by chance,” and whose Nobel Peace Prize award hailed him as “a messenger to mankind,” we remember how he taught us to never forget.
I am a child of Holocaust survivors and arrived in the United States as a refugee myself, having escaped from Hungary to France in 1948. We lived in France for several years while we awaited our papers to enter the United States. On the passenger manifest for the ship that brought us to America, our nationality was listed as “stateless.” For these reasons, I’ve felt compelled to act in the face of the immense suffering of the Syrian people. Syrians take their lives in their hands every day as they abandon their homes and belongings to resettle in vulnerable tent cities within Syria—escaping barrel bombings of their towns and villages, airstrikes on their hospitals and schools, and starvation tactics by their government. They risk their lives trying to cross the closed borders into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and risk drowning in the Aegean while seeking permanent safe haven in Europe.
The United States ranks fourth among nations whose people identify as highly religious, according to a 2015 Gallup Poll. And in a 2012 Pew Survey, U.S. religiosity stands out among economically advanced countries. Indeed, religiosity seems to have become a litmus test for holding office. Given this claim to piety, it is surprising that the U.S. House of Representatives is fast-tracking bills that violate the core principles of all the great faiths: to care for the stranger and act in the face of human suffering. Such bills seem designed to ensure that those beleaguered people never make it to U.S. shores.
The bills have innocuous names that cloak their anti-humanitarian intent: The Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act of 2016 and the Visa Integrity and Security Act (VISA) of 2016. The work of the current Congress generally grinds exceedingly slowly, but these bills moved like a bullet train through the House Judiciary Committee, without subcommittee review, hearings, expert witnesses, and little discussion of either bill. Opponents could barely raise challenges before the bills were gaveled “approved.”
Ostensibly, the bills would prevent terrorists from sneaking into America through the refugee resettlement program. Supporters maintain that they will improve the system’s security checks on refugees both before and after they arrive here. In reality, religious intolerance and the equating of Islam with terrorism fuel these bills. They fail to reflect American values or our respect for all faiths.
The truth is that before being admitted into the United States, every refugee undergoes a rigorous process of interviews, screenings and security clearance that can take at least 18 months and often many years to complete. Since the Syrian war began five years ago, we have admitted only 4,777 Syrian refugees of the 13 million who have been forced from their homes. And according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, another 24 people are fleeing from their homes every minute.
There is a compelling need to fix our refugee resettlement system. Funding increases are needed for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to speed screenings without compromising security. Hiring additional personnel with Middle East backgrounds could facilitate intelligence-gathering. Women and children -- the most vulnerable -- and medical workers who can assist underserved U.S. populations should be prioritized. A uniform protocol and standard criteria across agencies should be established. And adequate funding should be given to expedite refugee integration once they arrive.
Among other burdensome mandates of the VISA Act’s proposals, potential refugees would have to demonstrate that they were fleeing from violence specifically directed at them. As Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York poignantly noted, had this been the law during WWII, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany would have had to show that they were specific targets of vandalism and brutality. California Rep. Zoe Lofgren pointed out that under this bill, Syrians would need to prove that barrel bombs dropped on their town had directly targeted them.
If these bills become law, more money, time and people will be needed at every step of the resettlement process. They also risk causing unintended consequences. Trade associations, for example, warn of potential problems for travelers seeking visas and businesses bringing in employees.
Syrian refugees, many of whom are skilled and well educated, can be valuable assets to American life, as demonstrated in cities already being revitalized by their contributions. Many faith-based and civic organizations that are willing to sponsor Syrian refugees flatly reject the religious intolerance surrounding these legislative proposals, which will only further obstruct the process and ultimately keep refugees out. Where is the “integrity” in that?
The House Judiciary Committee has approved both bills. While it is unclear when or if they will be taken to the House floor for a vote, the public must let their representatives know that they do not support anti-American, religiously biased lawmaking. We cannot tolerate legislation that cloaks bad intentions in the guise of doing right. These bills can hurt a lot of innocent people: those escaping a humanitarian crisis, and Americans going about their business trying to make a living.
Legislators, who are zealous about thwarting Syrian refugee resettlement, would do well to remember a phrase we used after World War II: “Never again.”