Letter to the Editor: Amnesty International Moderator Robert Dannenfelser writes on Syrian refugees

This is an open letter to the John Carroll community,

Having lived abroad for five years, having interacted with other cultures, and having seen America through the eyes of people from beyond our borders, I have always held onto my American Ideals. In the years since September 11th, I’ve seen the very palpable change in America’s character, but I’ve always understood why. I’ve always been proud of the ideals upon which our nation was founded, and I have been proud to be an American, until now. On Thursday, November 19, I was ashamed to be an American for the first time in my life.

We are all aware of the bombings in Paris and Beirut, and I would hope we’ve all been following the news, from multiple sources, in the days since. Immediately after the bombings, officials across the nation began declaring that they would not accept Syrian refugees in their cities, states, or even in the nation. They made these declarations out of fear, responding to very frightening situations. These responses were to initial reports and rumors, (e.g. a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the attackers; therefore, he must have been one of the refugees.) It has since come to light that this passport was a forgery (http://www.nytimes.com/live/paris-attacks-live-updates/syrian-passport-reportedly-was-stolen-or-fake/).

The rhetoric we hear daily from our politicians, pundits, and political candidates; Donald Trump’s suggestion of a mandatory Muslim database registration is a sickening cross between 1930s Nazi Germany and Marvel Comics’ X-Men titles. Roanoke City Mayor David Bowers cited Roosevelt’s use of internment camps for Japanese-American citizens as grounds for outright rejecting Syrian refugees (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/11/18/roanoke-mayor-syrian-refugees/76016936/), because isolating and denying a group based on their ethnic, religious, or racial origin is always justified. As our 10th grade English students begin writing their argumentative essays, they are presented with logical fallacies, and here they have the real world example of a genetic fallacy: they are Muslim, therefore they are a danger.

After a week of one-upmanship on the part of our political leaders, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 289-137 to limit or deny entry to the 10,000 Syrian refugees awaiting clearance to come to the United States (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2015/11/19/house-moves-to-tighten-flow-of-syrian-refugees-over-obamas-objections/). This was not a party line vote, either, 47 Democrats voted for this bill in addition to the Republican members of the house. It is in that vote that ISIS won and America surrendered.

It is important to note the facts about the Syrian refugee crisis. More than 55% of the refugees are children under the age of 20. Of the more than 4 million Syrian refugees registered more than 2,000 are already in the United States. These combined with the 10,000 President Obama set as a target to take in add up to less than half a percent of the total number of Syrians forced from their home country because of war. Of the more than 2,000 in the U.S., none have been convicted of plotting terror attacks. The vetting process is intense and can last up to three years. Before they can apply for resettlement, they must be identified as a refugee by the UN Commission on Human Rights; The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (UNHCR). Once identified, and if they are referred to the U.S. Resettlement Support Center, under the auspices of the State Department, they are then subject to background checks from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as other domestic agencies. Their biometrics are taken (fingerprints, lie detector, etc.), they are given an in-person interview with someone from the State Department, and then after a process that lasts between 18-36 months, they are finally allowed on U.S. soil. All in all, it is not the most efficient way of entering the U.S., when a simple student visa would do.

Groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or the Irish Republican Army use violence and fear to get what they want. ISIS has publicly declared that they don’t want Syrians to leave Syria, and to that end they are doing their best to turn the world against the civilians caught up in a three-way war. The very threat of a few ISIS terrorists being able to slip in among Syrian refugees was enough to make our government, our elected leaders, turn from righteousness to cowardice. By rejecting the refugees, we force them into a position where they are left with but two choices: fall in line with ISIS or die. As a people, they are feeling hatred and ostracized, which opens the door to radicalization. Either way, we are doing exactly what ISIS wants and increasing their numbers, because we are acting out of fear and sensationalism.

By contrast, France, the victim nation of one the abhorrent attacks, is taking in 30,000 Syrian refugees, three times what the U.S. would have taken. It is tragically ironic that the Statue of Liberty, a gift to America from France to celebrate our nation’s centennial, bears the passage:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(From “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus)

France is showing the courage that America is supposed to have. Perhaps we should return Lady Liberty to the French, as we no longer are worthy of her.
This letter is in no way meant to downplay the very real possibility of ISIS members committing attacks on U.S. soil; however, it is meant to bring attention to the way we respond to such threats. In a nation where there have been more than 160 mass shootings since the beginning of the century, the odds of dying in such a shooting are approximately 1/150,000, whereas the odds of dying in a terrorist attack as an American are 1/20 million (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/09/11/nine-facts-about-terrorism-in-the-united-states-since-911/). Yet we close our doors to these women and children for fear of the possibility of violence.

John Carroll’s Amnesty International club is going to be conducting a letter writing campaign to our leaders in Annapolis and Washington, in the hopes of persuading them that they should not be governed by fear, and should help these desperate people in their hour of need. As Morgan said on The Walking Dead, “All life is precious.” While drawing from a popular, pulp, post-apocalyptic TV show, rather than a highbrow quote from a world-renown philanthropist or humanitarian, may seem lighthearted for the content of this letter, it begs the question: if such a television show can get behind the idea that every life should be protected, shouldn’t we as a nation be able to stand up for such an idea, or must we let our government shame us on a global scale by being the national equivalent of a dog with its tail between its legs? To that end, I ask you, the John Carroll community to stand with our Amnesty International students to give voice to what is right despite the risk, and send letters to Governor Hogan, as well as our national representatives. The link below will provide emails for our representatives in Washington D.C.


Yours in humanity,

Robert Dannenfelser
Moderator Amnesty International