Responding to Refugees: A Delicate Balance of Compassionate Welcome and Border Control


Alabama's Robert Bentley, left, and Michigan's Rick Snyder are governors of two of the 30 states that announced that they would not accept refugees from Syria.

Responses to the Paris attacks, after an immediate unity of shock and sympathy, have been widespread and wide-ranging.

Thoughts and prayers, condolences and other expressions of sympathy were the immediate response of many faith leaders.

As the shock has worn off, two contrasting responses have formulated - one rooted in faith and one based in fear, with the fate of vulnerable refugees, particularly those from Syria, in the balance.

The fear-filled response has closed off the avenues of welcome and provision.

On Sunday, the governors of Alabama and Michigan said their states would not accept any Syrian refugees.

Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama stated, "After full consideration of this weekend's attacks of terror on innocent citizens in Paris, I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. As your Governor, I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm's way."

Michigan's governor, Rick Snyder, issued similar remarks, citing safety concerns and emphasizing that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security must fully review its procedures for admitting refugees before he would reconsider his position.

By mid-week, more than 30 total states had released similar statements, citing concerns about the possibility of folks with terrorist connections making their way into their states and posing a threat to their citizens and the U.S. as a whole.

We can't control our initial, instinctual reaction to events like the Paris attacks; fear in the wake of such a horrendous event is understandable.

Paris is a high profile city, and ISIS has claimed in a video that more attacks are coming, so cities in the U.S., U.K. and other locales comparable to Paris might understandably be a bit "on edge."

Reacting based on these fearful feelings, however, is another matter - one that we can (and should) seek to control.

While the governors' concern for public safety and border security is understandable and to be commended, we need a more balanced approach that finds a way to demonstrate compassion to refugees while maintaining national security via border control.

The relationship between welcoming immigrants (whether economic migrants or refugees) and wise border control is a delicate one.

A "let all who will come" mentality is no more constructive than a blanket rejection of all immigrants from a particular location.

Conversations about Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. should begin with information about the present situation regarding numbers and processes for obtaining refugee status.

To date, the U.S. has accepted less than 2,000 Syrian refugees - a fraction of the nearly 100,000 who have made their way to Germany (mostly through unofficial channels) or the estimated 4 million total that have fled Syria. The Obama administration plans to allow up to 10,000 more in the next fiscal year.

The process by which potential refugees are allowed to enter our borders is lengthy and rigorous. Persons seeking to enter the U.S. as a refugee, CNN explains, must complete the following steps:

1. Apply for asylum status with the U.N.'s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

2. UNHCR then submits the accepted persons to its resettlement nations (one of which is the U.S.) for consideration.

3. The refugees selected undergo a rigorous 12- to 18-month screening process by the U.S. "Syrian applications can take significantly longer because of security concerns and difficulties in verifying their information," CNN noted.

4. A resettlement agency helps the approved refugees transition to life in the U.S. via language classes, vocational training and housing.

Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said it is "'the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States,'" CNN noted.

A State Department teleconference on Tuesday provided additional information on the U.S. refugee screening and admission procedures, seeking to outline the process and to clarify misperceptions.

Amid this uncertainty and fear, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has reaffirmed its commitment to aid Syrian refugees.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the USCCB, said, "We are always open to helping families who come into the United States in need of help. We have that tradition of doing it and we're going to contribute."

Even so, the USCCB, following Catholic social teaching, has long emphasized the importance and necessity of border control under three guiding principles:

1. Targeted: "Narrowly tailored, focusing on the dangerous and criminal elements" and "not rely[ing] upon ethnic and racial profiling and should not be so overly broad as to curtail basic rights."

2. Proportional: Not enacting "unnecessary penalties or rely[ing] upon unnecessary force," which might "drive migrants to risk their lives or violate the due process rights of migrants."

3. Humane: Respecting human rights and dignity as much as possible, prioritizing family reunification and protection of vulnerable peoples, and offering "meaningful protection to refugees and asylum seekers."

These are helpful guidelines that should inform conversations about how best to respond to the Syrian refugees vis-a-vis U.S. sovereignty over its borders.

In addition, a pastoral letter on immigration by Anthony Taylor, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, and editorials by EthicsDaily.com executive editor Robert Parham on border control (here and here), offers constructive moral resources for engaging these issues.

The consistent imperative in the biblical witness is treat "the stranger" (an inclusive term referring to immigrants of all kinds) with dignity and compassion.

Yet, Christians would be unwise to interpret this as justification for "open borders" or to denigrate and dismiss those concerned about the security of their state and the nation.

Forming opinions and making decisions regarding refugees based on faith rather than fear is vital, as is a "both-and" approach that seeks workable solutions uniting compassion toward refugees with wisdom in controlling national borders.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.

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Tags: Border Control, Compassion, Immigration, Refugees, Zach Dawes


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