Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
In late September, Pope Francis made history when he addressed a Joint Session of Congress. In that remarkable speech, the Holy Father demonstrated a surprising appreciation of America’s history and values while appealing to all that is best in the American spirit. To a nation of immigrants who have been generous in welcoming newcomers he reminded us that, “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
This is what Americans have always done when we have been at our best. There are certainly episodes in our history when we have not demonstrated that noble magnanimity: our history of slavery, our treatment of American Indians and the confinement of Japanese-Americans during World War II testify to the power of our baser instincts rooted in fear.
Responding to this global refugee crisis in a way consistent with the best of our American tradition became more complicated in the aftermath of the brutal ISIS attacks in Paris and the more recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino. Shocked by such brutality my first response is the need to offer condolences and the assurance of prayers for the victims and to pledge support to all who are working to insure that such attacks do not occur again. But, it also is important to recognize that refugees from places like Syria and Iraq are also victims of terror. They are escaping the same brutality we have witnessed in Paris and San Bernardino. These are extremely vulnerable families, women and children who are fleeing for their very lives. We should neither blame nor penalize them for the brutal actions of Islamist terror organizations like ISIS.
One of the prime objectives of terrorism is to instill fear and disrupt our lives. To the extent that we succumb to fear it carries the day. The recent call by some federal and state officials to close the doors of our nation to carefully vetted Syrian refugees is a matter of concern. In spite of good intentions, these responses seem to be rooted more in fear than in facts. Moreover, they ignore our noble tradition of welcoming refugees from every corner of the globe.
Certainly, government officials have an obligation to protect the security of our nation. Does that mean that we have to close the door to Syrian immigrants? No! This is not an either/or situation. The United States can continue to welcome carefully-vetted refugees while continuing to ensure our own security. We must do both.
Control over the admission of immigrants and refugees to our nation is an important federal responsibility. Refugees to this country are handpicked by the United States. They pass through multiple security checks and interviews involving the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Defense Department and various intelligence agencies before entering the United States. It can take up to two years for a refugee to complete the entire vetting process, and when they are finally admitted they are the most thoroughly vetted of any individuals who enter this country. We can certainly continue to strengthen the already stringent screening process, but we should continue to welcome those in desperate need. Let’s not contribute to the continuing victimization of these already traumatized victims of ISIS.
Instead of using this tragedy to scapegoat refugees, let’s encourage our public officials to work together to end the Syrian crisis so that the nearly four million Syrian refugees can return to their homeland and rebuild their lives. Until that’s possible, let’s work with other nations to provide safe havens to vulnerable and deserving refugees. We have an opportunity to demonstrate the best of our American spirit by providing leadership in bringing nations together to end these conflicts and give refuge to those who have been driven from their homes by war, by religious persecution and by the threat of terror.
As Christmas nears, we recall that our Savior Jesus Christ began his life as a homeless refugee, fleeing the threats of a murderous king. One of the corporal works of mercy that we are invited to embrace anew during this Jubilee of Mercy is sheltering the homeless. Homelessness wears many faces, including the faces of homeless refugees like the Holy Family and today’s refugees fleeing war and terror in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are among the least of our brothers and sisters whom Jesus invites us to receive to as an expression of our love for him.