Refugee communities around the United States are living in fear because of the staunch anti-refugee rhetoric being used by politicians. Unfortunately, the state of Texas, where I live and where I’ve worked with refugees for almost a decade, is at the forefront of this ugly language. Governor Abbott and others at the state capitol are working vehemently to prevent Syrian and Iraqi refugees from being resettled in our state. In November, Congressman Michael McCaul from Texas successfully introduced the poorly named American Security Against Foreign Enemies (or SAFE) Act to the House, where it passed. This Wednesday it is being voted on in the Senate.
I hope it doesn’t pass in the Senate; I can’t imagine it will get a veto-proof 67 votes, but these are strange times and it might. I’m afraid it will pass, but I’m even more afraid of a prolonged debate.
The longer we allow refugees to be a political issue that is hotly debated in our country, the higher the cost to actual refugees.
My refugee friends, who fled persecution and violence because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, understand that the rhetoric around them is heating up. They have been in this situation before in their home countries; they are becoming increasingly afraid. They have every right to be. The emotional and psychological damage is high.
More importantly, the physical danger of using dehumanizing language about refugees is very real.
Here are some examples of potential or real violence against refugees, friends of my friends, in the last few months in Texas alone:
- In Austin, at an English class attended by newly-resettled refugees, a man showed up just a few days before Christmas with a knife strapped under his shirt sleeve demanding to see the Syrian refugees. A refugee from a country in Africa thought quickly and sent him to another part of the building, then told the teachers, who called the police. The building went into lockdown. The level of panic hit the roof. All refugees have fled war or violence; almost every refugee I know has some form of PTSD. That quick-acting ESL student possibly saved lives, but the emotional and psychological affects of feeling under threat from armed men is still being felt in our community today.
- In Abilene, a white man threatened a refugee woman in a headscarf leaving work, telling her he would pour acid on her face. She was threatened for being a Muslim; she happened to be a refugee.
- In Dallas last winter, an Iraqi refugee was killed while taking pictures of the snow. He had never seen snow before. He and his wife had been separated for more than a year and had just been reunited days before the snowstorm; he died later in the hospital.
I know the people teaching the class in Austin and the women in Abilene is a friend of a friend. The situation in Dallas, which made national news, highlights the high cost of speaking of refugees as if they are all a threat. In Texas, too often perceived threats become targets.
For the eight years I’ve worked with refugees, that word has always been synonymous with “brave survivor” in every context I’ve ever used it.
In the last few months, I’ve watched in frustration and fear as the term “refugee” has become a buzzword meaning “terrorist” or “threat” or “other” in my state.
Refugees are not threats, but they are threatened.
Several people have asked me what they can do to help. I finally have an action item for you: call your Senator this week and tell them to vote against H.R. 4038, the American SAFE Act.
CWS Global, an activism and advocacy group, sent out the following email. I’m quoting from it directly because I thought their information was so useful. Call your senator ( 1-866-940-2439) and let them know you and your community are prepared to welcome Syrian refugees and that you do not support this bill.
Let’s make it clear: we as a country do not support anti-refugee legislation or political rhetoric.
From the CWS Global Newsletter:
Information and Scripts for the Vote on H.R. 4038
The U.S. Senate plans to vote this coming Wednesday, January 20th on H.R. 4038, “The American Security against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act,” which would grind to a halt the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. This bill was passed by the House of Representatives in November, so it is critical that it not pass the Senate. Such proposals and the anti-refugee sentiment that has accompanied them are morally reprehensible and go against who we are as a nation. It is critical that Senators hear from their constituents NOW.
Call your Senators TODAY & EVERY DAY leading up to the vote: Urge them to vote NO to H.R. 4038 and any legislation that would stop, pause or defund the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Call to be Connected to Your Senator: 1-866-940-2439
Sample Script: “I’m a constituent from [State] and I support the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. I am opposed to any bill that would stop or pause the resettlement of refugees of any nationality or religion. I urge the Senator to vote NO to H.R. 4038, The American SAFE Act.”
Below are some helpful points on the security checks involved in refugee resettlement, which is the focus of this legislation. The most important points to mention, however, are your story and why your community wants to welcome Syrian refugees.
- The U.S. government handpicks the refugees who resettle here, and the U.S. resettlement process has the most rigorous screening process in the world.
- Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted people to come to the United States, undergoing interagency screenings by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense, National Counter Terrorism Center and multiple intelligence agencies, including biometric checks, forensic document testing, medical tests and in-person interviews.
- Continuing refugee resettlement while maintaining national security is not an either/or situation. The United States can continue to welcome refugees while also continuing to ensure national security. We can and must do both.
You can also tweet your Senators and your network using the sample post below and a photo of yourself or your community: “.@SENATOR, Our community is ready to welcome #Syrian #refugees. Vote NO to H.R. 4038. #RefugeesWelcome #AmericaWelcomes!”
Follow @RCUSA_DC, @CWS_IRP on Twitter and “like” Refugee Council USA on Facebook for up-to-date alerts.