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Foster, Cominsky: Our fears should not scare us into leaving refugees to uncertain lives

18 Nov

By Charles C. Foster and Martin B. Cominsky

This week’s decision by a number of U.S. governors, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, to block resettlement of Syrian refugees is deeply troubling to those of us who care about the lives of refugees.

We share the same grief and horror wrought by the barbarous murders of innocent civilians in Paris and other areas of the world. And, we understand the concerns about security for our citizens. But these calls hide some basic facts that must be part of the conversation if we are to make sound decisions regarding this country’s refugee resettlement program for Syrians.

We are not calling for an open door policy to resettle Syrians. President Barack Obama’s goal was to resettle only an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees, a miniscule fraction of the 4.3 million people who have fled horrific conditions in Syria.

Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled to Europe seeking refuge, before refugees come to the U.S., they are subject to extensive background and security checks.

When a case is referred from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to the United States, a refugee undergoes a further security clearance check that takes several rounds, an in-person interview, approval by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, medical screening, a match with a sponsoring agency, cultural orientation classes and one final security clearance.

This all happens before a refugee can ever be admitted into the United States. These background checks are comprehensive and often take a year or more to complete. For refugee families, this time is spent in limbo, with no home, no connection to family and interrupted schooling for their children. It is not a life, in short, that anyone readily chooses.

As President Obama noted in Monday’s news conference at the G-20 Summit, these families are victims of terrorist violence themselves. That is why they are fleeing their homeland. At Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, we have heard many harrowing stories of persecution and violence. When we say the U.S. refugee program saves lives, it is not an exercise in hyperbole. Death is a very real narrative in the refugee story.

Perhaps most important, the course we take going forward says much about the character of this country. The strength of this nation lies in its diverse and respectful citizenry. Our goal is to make America a melting pot, not a cauldron. If we succeed, we will be stronger and richer for the process. But when we deny the opportunity of freedom to those most in need, then we have aided the terrorists in their deadly and disruptive agenda. More important, we change the course, set by generations of Americans before us, of being a nation of immigrants.

No one can guarantee that a terrorist won’t slip into the United States. But we must not let our fears scare us into leaving refugees to uncertain and unsafe lives. It is our responsibility to ensure that refugees’ lives are saved and that people have the human right to live in safety and security and with dignity.

Of course, Interfaith Ministries will continue to follow the laws set out by local, state and federal authorities. And, we will continue our work of helping refugees become valuable and productive members of our community.

We deeply mourn for the people of Paris and the victims of all terrorist atrocities, including the millions of Syrian refugees who face a terrifying and uncertain future each day.

Foster is chairman of Foster LLP and chairman of the Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston board. Cominsky is Interfaith Ministries president and CEO.