Gov. Bruce Rauner’s announcement that Illinois will temporarily stop accepting Syrian refugees is un-American, misguided, and exceeds his powers as governor.
According to Amnesty International, the conflict in Syria has already led to 220,000 deaths. Over 50 percent of the country’s population is displaced and, of those who have made it out of Syria, 95 percent (4 million) are in just five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. There can be no debate that this is a humanitarian crisis of immense proportion.
In response, President Barack Obama recently announced that the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. He has the authority to do so under the Refugee Act of 1980, which gives the president explicit statutory authorization to accept foreign refugees in to the United States who face “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” However, at this time, at least 25 governors, including Rauner, have stated that they will refuse Syrian refugees entry to their state over fears that terrorists will pass themselves off as refugees.
These statements are not in line with American values. Ensuring the security of our nation is certainly a priority today, especially in the wake of shocking terrorist attacks such as the recent attacks in Paris. However, we cannot allow ourselves to discard our values as a nation — equality, justice, peace — in pursuit of this goal. We cannot let terrorists erode our respect for human life. By announcing their intention to halt the admission of refugees, Rauner and others allow radical terrorists to dictate our principles.
In addition, such statements are premature and misguided. According to Rauner, “[T]he Paris terror attacks reminds us of the all-too-real security threats facing America.” However, there is not yet confirmation that any of the attackers involved in the Paris attacks were Syrian. Rather, every attacker that has been identified is a French national. The Syrian passport that was found on one of the attackers now appears to have been stolen, according French authorities.
Furthermore, the vetting process for refugees is extensive and includes collecting biographical information, fingerprinting, in-person interviews, and review by the Departments of State and Homeland Security working with the FBI, the Department of Defense, and other security agencies. According to Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute, the United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since Sept. 11, 2001. Zero of these refugees have been arrested on domestic terrorism charges. While ensuring the continued efficacy of our review process is of the utmost importance, we should not halt the existing program when there is no indication it has failed. As former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, said recently, “[W]e have always been a generous nation, and we have in place a rigorous process for refugee resettlement that balances our generosity with our need for security. It works, and it should not be stopped or paused.”
Governors do not have the authority to deny refugees admission to a state. As the Supreme Court explained in Hines v. Davidowitz, “the supremacy of the national power in the general field of foreign affairs, including power over immigration, naturalization and deportation, is made clear by the Constitution.” States still retain the power to deny their own resources to the federal government, a distressing thought given what most refugees have endured prior to reaching the United States.
Let us not allow fear to overtake our commitment to humanity. In Secretary Albright’s words, “by showing that we value every human life, we can make clear to the world where we stand.”
Matthew P. Dillinger is an immigration attorney in Chicago and a member of the National Immigration Lawyers Association.