Make America Great Again

by / Nov. 22, 2015 6am EST

Social media isn’t real life.

I think people tend to forget that from time to time. In a lot of ways, what people post to social media isn’t necessarily the truth, but life and opinions glimpsed through various filters. 

Last week, Erie County Legislator Joe Lorigo took to social media to demand that Mark Poloncarz, “reverse his stance” on welcoming Syrian refugees to Erie County. I reacted to that in some detail in this piece. There, I was wrong about something very important that shouldn’t be overlooked. I wrote, “[w]atch Monday as his colleagues in the majority caucus inevitably echo his clarion call; people with no say over the matter demanding that another guy with no say over the matter do something.”

That’s not at all what happened. 

Indeed, Lorigo was silent pretty much all week in advance of a meeting of the legislature that took place Thursday. He had a surrogate or two battling valiantly in his corner on social media all week, but there was nary a peep from other high-ranking Republicans or elected officials, with the notable exception of Republican Legislator Kevin Hardwick, who told WBEN that ”[t]o shut the door on these people doesn’t seem like a very American thing to do. You’re balancing your own security versus what you should do as an American. It’s a difficult thing to balance.”

No one backed Lorigo. There were whispers all week about saving face; saving Lorigo from himself. Amendments were offered that toned down the more outrageous rhetoric in Lorigo’s resolution, and the legislature ended up voting to hold an information session, rather than agreeing to hold a three-top public hearing circus.  

Brian Brown-Cashdollar - speaking for himself and not in his official capacity as the Development Director for Buffalo’s International Instituteone of several local refugee resettlement agencies - wrote an open letter to Lorigo on Friday, 

…if you expect to be treated seriously, then you should conduct yourself in a serious manner. Security concerns addressed by serious people are handled quietly. If you were sincerely concerned about the safety of your constituents, you would have contacted the County Executive privately. You would have approached Homeland Security and the State Department privately and inquired about the threats posed by refugees being resettled to the Western New York.

You would have learned the sad migration taking place in Europe has nothing in common with the refugee resettlement process in the United States. And increasingly it’s looking like it had nothing to do with the attacks in Paris either. You would have learned that refugees coming to the US are more rigorously screened than any other population of arriving immigrants. You would have learned since 9/11 there have been approximately three instances where the security professionals had concerns about the adequacy of the screening procedures, and they quietly slowed, limited, and after 9/11 temporarily halted the admission of refugees. You would have learned that procedures were adjusted and resettlement resumed, bringing much needed talent and energy to our communities. This has always been handled responsibly, respectfully, and discretely.

That gets to the heart of the matter — is any of this out of genuine security concerns, or is this all about politics? We know that a very slight majority of Americans say they support admission of Syrian refugees through the resettlement program, and Congress just passed a bill halting any refugees from being resettled in the United States from Syria or Iraq until some as-yet-undefined security assessment is certified as to every one. Never before - not after 9/11, nor in 2011 — has the refugee resettlement process or the admission of refugees been so starkly politicized. 

In large part, this politicized hysteria over Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States is designed by conservatives to promote two distinct threads: 1. that Democrats are willing knowingly to put Americans at risk (although the supposed rationale is never articulated); and 2. that Obama is an un-American foreigner more concerned with _____ than _______. The second is an old yarn that dances in step to the traditional explicit and implied charges that Obama is fundamentally not “American” enough. The first echoes the charges brought against people who opposed the Iraq war — that they were un-Patriotic; that they were traitors. It’s a short walk from “freedom fries” to today’s reflexive, reactionary hysteria. 

We have resettled refugees for years without incident — we have accepted refugees from enemy countries like Lebanon, the Soviet Union, and from war-torn, terrorist-filled places like Iraq. We’ve taken them in especially from places like Vietnam, where our own involvement helped bring about the crisis. Even in the very rare instances where someone turned out to be bad, no bad acts occurred. The edifice that the anti-immigrant populists have erected is emblazoned with, “Daesh will infiltrate the Syrian migrants”. This is true; however, as I wrote earlier, the legal, regulatory, geographic reality for migrants in Europe is completely different for those selected for resettlement in the United States. In fact, it can be argued that Daesh/ISIS, as currently consitituted, did not even exist when the current refugees arriving from Syria first applied for resettlement. It is also palpably true that terrorists don’t have to — and won’t — wait to undergo a strenuous and lengthy refugee resettlement process to enter the U.S. when anyone with a Belgian or French passport can travel here as a tourist without first obtaining a visa. 

The people who have left Syria in the last few months and who are now applying for refugee status are not yet in the U.S., and won’t be for two years while their identities are ascertained and their security risk determined. Clearly, people whose identities can’t be verified won’t be let in. The refugee resettlement program is to a great extent handled here in the U.S. by faith-based organizations. The Catholic Bishops and the Evangelicals have already condemned the ban on — and scapegoating of — refugees from Syria, some of whom are Christian, many of whom are intact family units. They don’t endure 2 years in a refugee camp in Jordan with their kids just so they can come here and be part of a sleeper cell.

If people think that there are security holes in the vetting process, that is, I suppose, news to everyone who does this on a daily basis. If genuine concerns exist, certainly a pause — much less an outright ban — is not necessary for intelligence agencies to do something more to make changes or enhancements to the process. Some of the more extreme suggestions I’ve seen online or heard on local hate radio — for instance, that we round Muslims up in camps, or deport them, or require them to be registered with the government and carry a special ID, are downright anti-American and on their face violative of the Constitution.

Local AM talk radio has been unlistenably irresponsible and packed with lies. Tom Bauerle said that there were no families among the Syrian refugees — that it was all men of military age. That’s not true. I heard that these refugees are “pedestrian blitzkrieg”. That’s not true. I heard that this is an “invasion”. That’s not true. I heard that Muslim countries weren’t taking them in. That’s not true — in fact, Turkey has taken 2.2 million refugees, and Lebanon has taken 1.1 million. Jordan is sheltering 1.4 million. When Tom Bauerle — who has spent the better part of the week as a human thesaurus re-expressing how he doesn’t want Syrian refugees, “in my country” - has to admonish regular caller “Rambo Jim” to cool it with the Holocaust boxcars-for-Muslims scenarios, you know that a rhetorical, political, legal, rational, and human line has been flagrantly crossed.

Towards the end of an obnoxiously reactionary week, people on a Southwest flight had a fellow passenger detained prior to a flight because he committed the crime of speaking Arabic. The pizza maker was chatting with a friend and someone felt “uncomfortable”. The man called police, and was ultimately allowed on the flight. He also committed the crime of holding a white box, and had to prove to his fellow passengers that he was flying with baklava. He shared it with these people. 

Pizza shop owner Maher Khalil emigrated from Palestine 15 years ago. He says he had never experienced discrimination before the incident Wednesday at Midway International Airport.

“We came to America to have a better life,” Khalil explained on Friday. “Everybody in America is from different countries. I’m one of them. I’m an American citizen.”

…”I swear, I never had that feeling before,” Khalil said. “I felt like we’re not safe no more in this country. Because I’m Arab, I cannot ride the airplane? The person who complained is the one who should be kicked out, not me.”

We’re on a precipice — the question is whether we jump or begin walking this anti-American madness back. 

Europe has taken under 300,000 refugees, and France has re-stated its commitment to take 30,000 of them in spite of last week’s attacks. The United States was on track to accept 10,000 of them (propagandists are accusing Obama of 10x or 30x that). The screening protocol is well-documented, multi-faceted, and extremely thorough. They work in conjunction with local resettlement programs. The refugees we see in Europe — the ones described on the radio as an “invasion” — come from Syria to Europe by raft or by land. They can’t do that to reach the U.S. It’s turned out so far that exactly zero of the Paris attackers was Syrian — all of them were French or Belgian and could, ostensibly, board a flight to the US on any given day, without a visa.

Perhaps the most craven local political hypocrite of all is Representative Chris Collins. When asked about halting the resettlement of Syrian refugees, he said, “I’d rather err on the side of safety. Safety first, second and third.”  When confronted with the fact that the perpetrators of the Paris attacks held Belgian passports, he said, “he didn’t want to disrupt international travel. ‘One thing we can’t do,’ he said, ‘is overreact in a way that would make ISIS very happy.’”

The problem is that the scapegoating of Syrian refugees — including Kurds and Christians — makes ISIS, “very happy” indeed. More importantly, our gun laws are so lax that, so far, 2,043 people on the FBI’s terror watch list have been legally allowed to purchase guns in this country. ”The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is used to clear gun purchases, is not cross-referenced with the FBI’s list of potential terrorists.” Republicans, backed by the NRA, have consistently failed and refused to close this significant loophole, thus putting the lie to all of their self-righteous bleating about security. 

In response to that, Collins says it’s a “red herring”, and that, “[i]t goes back to the liberal left’s thought that you can legislate against bad people.” Sort of like voting for a “pause” to re-assess the security and identity process used to resettle Syrian refugees in order to prevent terrorists from gaining entry to the U.S. 

If we’re assessing risks, the greater risk is that our domestic intelligence services don’t know enough about Belgian or French terrorists whose passports enable them easy travel to the US. The risk isn’t from families awaiting resettlement screening, but from disaffected, unemployed Belgian youth of Algerian or Moroccan extraction who are on a French watch list but not an American one, and who hold a passport from a visa waiver country. What we should be doing is growing our intelligence sharing with European allies and shoring up our surveillance, human, and signals intelligence as it relates to anyone seeking entry to the United States via any means. 

But from a political standpoint, I don’t think that conservatives pushing the refugee-scapegoating meme have property thought out how this all affects their position on gun control generally. In the wake of myriad recent mass shootings, gun control advocates have called for strengthening of our background checks, closing of loopholes, and uniformity of regulations in order to better prevent bad people from obtaining firearms. While the overwhelming majority of gun owners are law-abiding and responsible, we should put controls in place to protect Americans from preventable gun violence. The NRA and other gun advocacy groups oppose any tightening of these regulations as violative of a legally inaccurate, absolutist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.

But if we have to implement stricter background checks on Syrian refugees to protect against the small number who might seek to do us harm, mustn’t the same argument be valid when it comes to reasonable gun control measures? 

While everyone was paying close attention Thursday to a county legislature debating amendments to a toothless piece of irrelevant paper, everyone overlooked something that passed unanimously. The Legislature authorized County Executive Poloncarz to enter into a contract with the NYS Office of Indigent Legal Services to accept a state grant of $1.35 million, and to contract with the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer’s Project to deliver the servcies anticipated under that grant. 

The grant specifically expands the county’s ability to provide legal representation in criminal and family court matters to indigent non-citizen, immigrant persons in Erie County. This specific grant is put in place to ensure that indigent defendants are represented adequately where criminal and immigration matters intersect. 

What this means is that, on the same day that the county legislature wasted time responding toothlessly to a remote possibility that refugees might commit bad acts, it expressly authorized the use of state funds to represent immigrants who were already accused of actually having commited them

Ultimately, the blood libel that Democrats or liberals are willing to put Americans at risk is beneath our discourse, and the time for politicizing security fell from the skies 14 years ago.

We can do a hell of a lot better than what’s happened over the last week. In response to terror in France, we succumbed to fear and unfounded political reaction. In 1941, FDR declared that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. In blaming the victims of ISIS for ISIS’ crimes, we indict the very notion of what America is supposed to be, and for what it is supposed to stand.