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Embracing Syrian Refugees is on The Right Side of History

By Professor Elizabeth Keyes

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s request that the federal government not send any Syrian refugees to Maryland until it can provide assurances about security concerns taps needlessly into people’s worst fears about refugees, and defies understanding of the reality of our refugee program.

The federal government, which has exclusive responsibility for deciding who enters the country, shares Governor Hogan’s concern for security. Any immigrant to this country is scrutinized for potential security risks, but refugees are subject to heightened scrutiny that lasts months and, sometimes, years as U.S. officials overseas in refugee camps painstakingly establish the identity of the prospective refugees, and run those verified identities through extensive background checks. Any connection of the refugee or family members to any individual or group deemed even peripherally to be a security risk will not be admitted to the United States.

Governor Hogan is smart enough to know that the U.S. refugee processing program focuses intensively on security. So this is a political move, not one grounded in good policy, and the politics put Maryland squarely on the wrong side of history, the side that shunned Irish fleeing the famine, the side that turned away boats of Jewish refugees in World War II. That is not the side we want to be on.

First, consider who these refugees are. We are talking about Syrians who fled the very people responsible for the atrocious attacks in Paris. We are talking about men, women and children seeking safety for their own families. We are talking about people like that poor young child the image of whose body washed up on the shores of Greece shocked our consciences earlier this fall. We are talking about people who will have spent months, if not years, in refugee camps waiting for approval to come to the United States. These are not terrorists seeking an easy way into the country.

Second, consider the numbers. We have about 35 Syrian refugees now in Maryland. That number may grow to about 200 once the program is fully up and running, since Maryland typically takes about 2% of the refugees in the United States, and President Obama has made space for 10,000 Syrian refugees total. 200 out of the several million refugees from this crisis. And the Governor does not want to welcome even that paltry number.

Third, consider our history. Maryland, founded on principles of religious liberty, provided safety for Christians fleeing persecution for their beliefs. We welcomed freed slaves and Baltimore thrived with the largest population of free African-Americans in the country before the Civil War. And we have been a home to waves of refugees ever since, from the Irish in the 19th century to the Bhutanese in the 21st. History shows us that refugees integrate and strengthen us across the generations.

Finally, consider good policy. Many French people have commented in the wake of the attacks, that the isolation and alienation of minorities in France and Belgium is a root cause of the problem, and racial justice must be part of the response. America’s history is different from Europe’s when it comes to the welcome of immigrants, and good policy demands that we continue to focus on refugee integration, and continue to support the excellent work of the organizations who undertake this work in Maryland, like the International Rescue Committee and the Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service. Refugees who feel welcome and who find opportunity are refugees who live peacefully and productively in our midst. We need more welcome, not less.

The Governor’s concern for security and guarantees resonates with us, understandably. But shutting down our welcome of refugees fleeing terrorism is the wrong answer on every level. It makes us no safer, and it undermines a history that Maryland can be proud of. Let us stand on the right side of history.

About Professor Keyes:

Professor Elizabeth Keyes

Professor Keyes directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore. Her teaching, scholarship and practice all focus on improving access to justice for immigrants in the immigration system and other intersecting areas of the law, from criminal to family law.

Prior to joining the UB faculty, Professor Keyes was a Practitioner-in-Residence with the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University Washington College of Law, where she supervised students in detained immigration removal cases, civil rights cases, visa applications for crime survivors, and a broad range of policy work related to immigrants’ rights.

Click here to read Professor Keyes’ full bio.