Since the Paris terrorist attacks, Americans and Rhode Islanders have been engaged in debate over the fate of refugees. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says Rhode Islanders must consider our state’s immigrant heritage.
The scenes from dueling Statehouse rallies last week were stark. On one side was a crowd of about 125 urging tolerance and acceptance of more Syrian refugees. They carried signs stating 'Fear is not leadership' and invoking the religious tolerance preached by our state’s founder, Roger Williams.
On the other was a smaller group of around 40 worried about admitting refugees. They carried signs saying 'No to Radical Islamists in Rhode Island' and 'RI Has Too Many Homeless, Hungry, help Home First.'
This is a joust between order and justice. As is often the case, there is a kernel of truth in what both sides say. In the aftermath of the Paris terror, there may well be a need for western societies to sacrifice some of our cherished liberties, at least in the short-term, for the sake of security.
There isn’t a system in a free country for vetting of immigrants and refugees that will be fail-safe. Yet, in the case of refugees escaping war-ravaged Syria, Rhode Islanders should heed our history and prudently open our hearts and homes to our fellow humans.
After initially acting more out of caution than courage, Gov. Gina Raimondo has embraced compassion. "People are afraid, I understand that, the governor said. But at the same time as we focus on our security, we must not lose sight that there are families desperately fleeing oppression and terrorism."
Rhode Islanders need to shed their amnesia about foreigners that too often these days rears its ugly head. In the myth of nostalgia and family legend, the descendants of European and Canadian immigrants came here legally, stepped of the boat or train into the middle class and learned English quickly in two-parent families.
From the Irish famine in the 19th Century, Rhode Island has opened its doors to the downtrodden from around the globe. Unless you are a native American, you hail from immigrant stock.
Our state once had a sizeable Syrian immigrant community in the Blackstone Valley, particularly in Central Falls and Pawtucket. The generational ethnic and immigrant waltz that has long defined our corner of New England is what has made us what we are today.
While our state and country have largely been welcoming to the oppressed, this has not always been true. There was practically no illegal immigration until the 1920s, when the Protestant majority, alarmed over the arrival of so many Roman Catholics from southern Europe, prevailed upon Congress to shut the door on immigration, particularly from Italy and other southern European countries.
On the cusp of World War II, a Depression-wracked and isolationist United States barred Jews fleeing Hitler’s Europe from settling in our country. This short-sighted policy led to more Holocaust deaths.
Some at the Statehouse gathering protesting bringing more Syrian refugees in pointed to the need to take care of homeless and jobless veterans first. That’s a serious concern, but where is it decreed that our comparatively wealthy and peaceful nation can’t resettle refugees and help our vets?
Our struggling state obviously can’t spend taxpayer money to help refugees. But with federal money and the generosity and help of our citizenry, we can do our part. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every church, synagogue and mosque in Rhode Island adopted a Syrian family or two?
Sen. Jack Reed got this right when he said, "We have to be careful, but our country has always balanced its military strength with a willingness to help those fleeing war. In addition to forcefully targeting ISIL, we must be resolute in providing assistance to those suffering in Syria and elsewhere."
Reed also noted that there are rigorous background checks and a long application process before refugees are eligible to resettle in our country.
As Raimondo said, "As we approach Thanksgiving, it’s a good time to remember how much we have to be thankful for, to give back and to make our country stronger. Rhode Island will do so with calm and compassion."
Do we really want to do any less?
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org.