The GOP’s Reckless Refugee Rhetoric
How the Republicans’ campaign against Syrian refugees disgraces their party.
Republicans need to reacquaint themselves with Robert Ray.
The Republican governor of Iowa from 1969 to 1983, Robert Ray opened his state to help settle refugees after the Vietnam War, right in the middle of America’s heartland. “I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die.’ We wouldn’t want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same situation,” said Ray. “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”
He led when others followed and won another two terms. People have a funny way of rewarding moral courage at the end of the day. After all, it’s so rare to see in a politician.
But in the wake of the Paris attacks, more than two dozen governors—all Republicans, except for New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, a Democrat—announced they did not want to have any Syrian refugees darken their states. One would-be governor, the desperate David Vitter, lost no time in cutting a negative attack ad trying to make it look like President Obama was intentionally importing terrorists to Louisiana. Folding to fear-mongering apparently seems like good politics in 2015. It will look awful in a few decades.
The presidential candidates performed even worse under this policy pressure.
By now it should come as no surprise that Ted Cruz raced to embrace the new low. The son of a refugee from Cuba announced that he would introduce a bill to ban Muslim refugees from entering the country. Only the most venal political cynicism could explain why he pivoted from calling for more refugees as a way of hitting President Obama’s lack of early action to his 180-degree turn today.
Most of the GOP field has followed suit, smelling political vulnerability in anything less than a Fortress America pose. Jeb Bush, who should know better, aped Cruz by backing a religious litmus test for incoming refugees. Donald Trump doubled down on deporting refugees and said that we should also be looking at closing mosques. Ben Carson continued to be incoherent on the subject of foreign policy. Even the normally sensible Chris Christie fell into the trap of the center-right politicians trying to show that they can be as tough as the crazies by recklessly throwing red meat, telling radio show host Hugh Hewitt that he would not accept Syrian orphans under the age of 5 into the country.
It is worth remembering that it was the body of a 3-year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed up dead on a beach in Bodrum, that helped galvanize world opinion in favor of bringing in refugees by shaking us out of our moral myopia.
Of course the refugees fleeing ISIS are themselves victims of terrorist violence. And as Reason’s Matt Welch detailed, contra claims by Trump and Carson, the majority of Syrian refugees are not “military-aged males,” but women and children.
Part of the ISIS mythology is based on pretending that they represent a clash between Islam and the West, instead of a clash between an apocalyptic death cult and civilization.
The way we will win this long war is not through military means alone, though that is an essential component (and it is ridiculous that the city of Raqqa has been allowed to solidify its role as the ISIS capital for so long). Ultimately, we will succeed by showing that we are different and bigger and better than the “us versus them” stereotypes that terrorists so desperately want the Arab street to believe.
That requires us living up to our best traditions, not solidifying our worst fears. And for those governors and presidential candidates who would seek to turn away refugees from ISIS, I’d recommend that they reacquaint themselves with the poem written by Emma Lazarus on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
That is the spirit of Liberty. All the reflexive campaign rhetoric about America being a beacon of freedom is now being put to the test. We should screen refugees for security and then welcome them in, letting the process of assimilation work without apology.
That is the American story and it is our responsibility to carry that story forward. Failure to do so represents a rejection of our best traditions, folding in the face of fear. Governors and presidential candidates above all should hold themselves to a higher standard. And if the Statue of Liberty is too lofty a goal to reach in a mean-spirited political season then perhaps they could at least borrow some caucus-proof political courage from the example of Iowa’s own Robert Ray.