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Seventy-six years ago this past summer, the MS St. Louis — an ocean liner carrying 907 refugees fleeing the unspeakable horrors of World War II — returned to Belgium after being turned away from Miami by U.S. officials.
While some on that infamous “Voyage of the Damned” ultimately found refuge in Great Britain and elsewhere, 254 subsequently perished in the Holocaust, many in the gas chambers of Sobibór and Auschwitz, the rest of disease or starvation in the death camps or while fleeing the Nazis.
History has not judged kindly the refusal by U.S. authorities that ultimately set those 254 souls on an unnecessary path to their deaths. As we consider the current plight of refugees trying to escape even more brutal realities in Syria, we should consider what judgments will be made of us, if we allow the shrill voices of the frightened and uninformed to prevail in a debate that has exploded around the country over the past five days.
Pandering to those voices, 25 governors — 24 Republicans and a lone Democrat — on Monday announced they would refuse to allow refugees fleeing the vivid hell that is Syria to enter their states. Never mind that the governors lack the constitutional authority for such action. Never mind that not a single one of the eight suspected attackers in last week’s terrorist atrocities in Paris — seven of whom are dead — was a Syrian refugee (at least five, in fact, were French nationals).
Here in Hawaii, our governor kept his head. David Ige quietly announced that Hawaii would not abandon its “tradition of welcoming all people with tolerance and mutual respect,” including Syrian refugees.
“The U.S. accepts refugees, including Syrians, only after they are subjected to the most vigorous and highest level of screening and security vetting,” said Ige in statement. “As President Obama has said — slamming the door in their face would be a betrayal of our values.”
The firestorm that followed that announcement took many by surprise, including the governor himself. Outraged Hawaii residents lit up website comment sections and social media, denouncing Ige in language often racist, crude and otherwise vile. (Civil Beat banned multiple commenters from its website Tuesday for violation of comment guidelines and deleted dozens of posts throughout the day on its Facebook wall for similar reasons.)
Less than 24 hours later, Ige held a hastily arranged press conference to discuss the matter in further detail. Over the past decade, he explained, Hawaii has accepted a total of 21 refugees through the United Nations refugee program that sends asylum seekers to the United States and elsewhere. None has been Syrian.
The process for allowing refugees to enter our country is rigorous, a 1½ to 2-year “labyrinth of checks and cross checks,” as a National Public Radio correspondent described it Tuesday.
Since 2011, about 23,000 Syrians have sought refugee status in the United States, fleeing the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, according to Ige and the White House. Just over 7,000 of them made it through initial screening. And of that group, fewer than 2,000 made it through to the United States.
The likelihood of any Syrian refugees ever making it to Hawaii, in fact, are remote. Why? The U.S. State Department has two criteria for placing refugees. First, they must have a sponsor — typically family or a community organization — at their destination, and second, there must be a cultural network to support them in the community.
With its dearth of people from the Middle East in general, much less Syria specifically, and the attendant lack of Middle Eastern cultural institutions, Hawaii is a highly unlikely destination for any of the millions fleeing Syria.
No doubt, these are difficult times. The Paris attacks coupled with threats against the United States have everyone on edge. But let’s all take a deep breath.
Ige conceded he might have been more explanatory, more thoughtful with his Monday statement, might have taken into account more fully potential concerns over safety for Hawaii communities.
“I was horrified by the (terrorist) actions taken in France. I think a lot about whether that can happen in Hawaii or anywhere else in the United State or the world,” said Ige. “But I also understand what happens when a community is discriminated against irresponsibly and with no basis.”
Too many Hawaii residents didn’t think about that Monday and Tuesday. They didn’t think about, as Ige described them, “mothers and fathers and children who have been through horrific ordeals in their country.”
Innocent moms, dads and kids whom they would have turned away, much like the passengers aboard the MS St. Louis, had they shown up on our islands this week.
No doubt, these are difficult times. The Paris attacks coupled with the threats of the terrorist organization responsible to take similar actions in the United States have everyone on edge.
But let’s all take a deep breath. Syrian terrorists are not coming to our shores. The U.S. vetting process for admitting asylum seekers is stringent and rigorous, so much so that “even refugees who perfectly qualify must wait months and are frequently turned away,” reported Vox on Tuesday.
David Ige is a decent man, tending to the duties of his office as defined by the State of Hawaii and the U.S. Constitution.
In the days and weeks ahead, let us not lose sight of those facts, nor of the basic humanity connecting the people of Hawaii to our desperate brothers and sisters locked in the unrelenting misery of Syria.