​Virginia can’t refuse Syrian refugees, nor should it

Attempts to prevent refugees from entering the state are rooted in xenophobia

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced last week that he would not seek to block the entry of Syrian refugees into Virginia, responding to calls from Republicans to prevent their entry following recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

Many state governors have said they would attempt to block Syrian refugees from their states, and Virginia Republicans have urged McAuliffe to refuse to accept Syrian refugees for the next two years, including four members of the House of Delegates who plan to introduce legislation in the 2016 General Assembly session imposing a moratorium.

For legal and administrative reasons, the argument is immaterial: states have no power to resist the intake of refugees, as the Refugee Act of 1980 gives the federal executive branch statutory authority to accept foreign refugees into the country, according to Think Progress’ Ian Millhiser. Because of this, McAuliffe couldn’t legally prevent the admittance of refugees — even if he wanted to. But it is disturbing that Virginia and national politicians would curb the admittance of refugees, whether or not they have the power to do so.

On a national scale, President Barack Obama has advocated for increasing the number of refugees the United States accepts, deciding in September that his administration would take in at least 10,000 displaced Syrians over the 2016 fiscal year. However, the House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that would suspend the program that allows Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the United States until national security agencies certify the individuals in question don’t pose a security risk. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats will attempt to block the bill in the Senate, and Obama previously said he plans to veto it.

The push to prevent the admission of refugees demonstrates embarrassingly xenophobic tendencies from U.S. and Virginia politicians. As The New York Times Editorial Board wrote last week, “Confusing refugees with terrorists is morally unacceptable and, as a matter of strategy, misguided.” The push suggests a conflation of Muslims with members of the Islamic State, on the part of these politicians — not only a discriminatory notion, but one that ignores the reality of why these refugees are attempting to enter the United States: because in many cases they themselves are fleeing terrorism.

For refugees attempting to enter both the country and our state, there is already a complicated process in place that mitigates security risks. Applicants must provide histories and family origins, as well as law enforcement, past travel and immigration records to be vetted by national security, intelligence, law enforcement and consular officials — which can take up to two years for each person. Moreover, half of the Syrian refugees accepted into the United States have been children, and a quarter of those accepted are over 60 years old.

Here in Virginia, immigration has consistently been on an upward trend. As of 2012, one in every nine Virginians is foreign-born, compared with one in 100 in 1970, according to the U.Va. Cooper Center’s March 2014 report. At U.Va., we boast a student population that comes not only from 49 states but also 119 foreign countries. Our country, state and school value diversity of origin and background, as they should. Charlottesville specifically has a history of welcoming refugees; the city accepted 241 displaced refugees in 2014-15 and is designated a preferred city for refugees by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Charlottesville’s chapter of the International Rescue Committee, a not-for-profit dedicated to responding to humanitarian crises, has taken in one Syrian family this past summer, according to its site.

National and state security are not something to be taken lightly. But, we have no reason to doubt the current system in place. In the aftermath of a harrowing event, politicians are opposing a legitimate resettlement process instead of addressing root causes of terrorism. Equating refugee resettlement with the issue of terrorism is a dangerous path that embodies fear-mongering and xenophobia. Those are not the values our state ought to promote.

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