Posted by Nadia Aziz on November 12, 2015 in Blog

Media attention surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis has largely focused on the debate and demand for the United States to increase its admittance numbers of Syrian refugees. With less than 1 percent of the refugees admitted to the U.S. since 2011 being Syrian, it is a worthy discussion.

Despite this being the worst humanitarian disaster of our time, part of the problem in taking in more Syrian refugees has been that a small group of members of Congress have attempted to frame this dire humanitarian crisis as a national security concern. These claims continue even in spite of the fact that all refugees receive extensive screening and intelligence checks, and are among the most carefully vetted travelers to the U.S. So why do we keep hearing about this?

The answer is a familiar one: bigotry. The debate has trickled down from fear-mongering tactics on a national level about the refugee vetting process to local communities, including several county councils passing resolutions that tell refugees, specifically Syrian refugees, or refugees of Middle Eastern descent, that they are unwelcome.  

In April, Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) wrote a letter to the State Department requesting they halt the resettlement of refugees in his district, Spartanburg County. He cited a “lack of notice, information and consultation,” and framed the issue around alleged security implications of immigration.

Within months, three counties in South Carolina passed resolutions or voted against participating in refugee resettlement programs – in October, the Pickens County Council unanimously passed a motion opting to not participate in a refugee resettlement program.  Earlier this month, Berkeley County unanimously passed a resolution calling on “all South Carolina public officials to immediately cease and desist” from helping to resettle refugees from the Middle East. The York County Council proposed a similar resolution, but it failed to be put to a vote. Greenville County Council is considering a similar vote on the resettlement of refugees.

Despite the low refugee resettlement numbers in South Carolina (roughly 226 refugees within the past year –none of them Syrian), this rhetoric is being encouraged by anti-Muslim sentiment that is spouted by groups like Center for Security Policy.  In fact, while praising Rep. Trey Gowdy’s request for resettlement of refugees in his district to halt, the Center for Security Policy also publicized a blatantly hateful and bigoted manuscript, “Refugee Resettlement and the Hijra to America,” that equates refugee resettlement to a “silent jihad” and calls for a “moratorium on Muslim immigration to America.” One especially disturbing and ridiculous claim has a section entitled “Migration is Jihad.”

These techniques have been used before. Similar to the wave of anti-Sharia bills in state legislatures, anti-refugee resolutions are driven by bigotry. However, while an influx of anti-sharia bills was a proposed solution to a fabricated and irrational fear, anti-refugee resolutions have the somber capacity to affect the lives of a vulnerable population in need of refuge.

These blatantly hateful techniques and bigoted rhetoric have no place in public dialogue. When members of Congress and elected officials in our local communities think about their role in refugee resettlement, their thoughts should turn to how we can ensure that the robust vetting process may be streamlined so the United States can uphold its proud tradition of resettling refugees. Their thoughts should turn to how we can welcome these communities and work with them so that they can achieve the American dream of opportunity and prosperity. Their thoughts should not turn to closing doors. Their thoughts should not turn to fear 

After the Pickens County Council decision to not participate in refugee resettlement programs was announced, I wrote an op-ed in The Greenville News expressing my disappointment and desire for South Carolinians to join me in writing to our elected officials. The following day, The Greenville News published their editorial: “Syrian refugees not a threat to Upstate.”

While the debate and conversation is ongoing in South Carolina, this is largely a national issue. We must continue to ensure the hateful and bigoted rhetoric that threatens smart and compassionate policies does not go unchecked. We must work against the fear-tactics that encourage hateful legislation at a local level. Just like anti-sharia legislation was called out for what it is, using vulnerable Syrian refugees to scare people will also fail.  Our national character depends on it.