Syrian refugees and moral courage

Crystal Zevon, center, attends a rally Friday in Montpelier, Vt., to support bringing Syrian refugees to the state.
Crystal Zevon, center, attends a rally Friday in Montpelier, Vt., to support bringing Syrian refugees to the state. The Associated Press

The events of recent days have been breathtaking. In the wake of devastating terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut this month, more than 30 United States governors have vowed to pull the welcome mat from Syrian refugees who enter the United States.

Importantly, states do not have the legal authority to make this decision. The Refugee Act was passed by Congress in 1980 and provides the federal government with clear responsibility over refugee admissions. Also, constitutional issues arise when states discriminate based on national origin or deny immigrants the ability to live in any state after they are admitted as refugees. But the law that applies has been superseded by emotion and politics. While states do not have the legal authority to admit or deny refugees, they play an important consultation role and in making refugees feel welcome. Importantly, Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., have displayed leadership in their commitment to welcome refugees from Syria. As expressed by Casey: “We cannot turn our back on Syrian refugees. Turning them away on the basis of religion or ethnicity is inconsistent with our principles as a nation.”

Beyond the states, and over a veto threat by President Barack Obama, the House of Representatives passed legislation by a vote of 289-137 (including 47 Democrats) titled the “American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015” which is aimed at halting Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States.

On the other side, Obama has threatened to veto this legislation and furthermore pledged to accept 10,000 refugees in the next year. Of the millions of Syrian refugees around the world, the United States has admitted less than 2,000. Indeed, the hostility toward refugees is a second tragedy and ignores the fact that they are rigorously screened, fingerprinted and run through security and intelligence databases before they are brought to the United States.

According to the Department of State, a refugee undergoes 18-24 months of processing before arriving in the United States. Most refugees are referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and later in the process interface with the United States Citizenship Immigration Services, a unit within the Department of Homeland Security whose officers are employed to conduct in-person interviews to determine if the individual qualifies as a refugee. Meeting the legal definition for refugee is no easy task and requires the individual to show past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Individuals who have committed certain crimes do not qualify. The lengthy security process coupled with the high legal standard makes it unlikely that a terrorist would use the refugee program as a tool to enter and cause danger to the United States.

America has protected refugees from every part of the world and must show moral courage in protecting Syrians fleeing civil war and conflict.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia is the Samuel Weiss faculty scholar and law professor at Penn State Law-University Park where she teaches immigration and asylum and refugee law and also directs the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. Wadhia is author of “Beyond Deportation: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Cases” (NYU Press 2015).