Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, spoke on the University’s Dearborn campus Friday afternoon, highlighting elements of his vision for foreign policy related to the Middle East.
His speech was one event of the three-day Yalla Vote summit held by the Arab American Institute, a national nonprofit. The summit’s goal was to provide an opportunity for leaders of the Arab American community to engage with presidential candidates and politicians on international issues. Arab Americans make up about one third of the city’s population.
The AAI said all presidential candidates were invited to the event, but O’Malley was the only one to appear at the event in person. Democratic candidate U.S Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), as well as GOP candidates U.S Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), are scheduled to deliver video addresses to the summit Saturday. O’Malley is currently polling below 1 percent in the Democratic contest.
O’Malley noted several times in his speech that Islamophobia and xenophobia are rampant in the United States today, and said he understands it can be discouraging to be an Arab American or an American Muslim.
“At the Republican debate, Donald Trump said it wasn’t fair that he didn’t know the names of terrorist leaders because, he said: they all have Arab names,” O’Malley said. “Ben Carson flat out said he would not be comfortable with a president who happened to be Muslim. One wonders, from a man who understands the value of education, what sort of message that sends to Muslim American little boys and girls studying American history.”
He acknowledged the threat terrorist groups in the Middle East, such as the Islamic State, present to the United States, but cautioned that fear should not prevent Americans from being open or inclusive.
“There are other ways to lead then at the end of a drone strike,” he said. “And in the face of this humanitarian crisis, we need to step up … The image of our nation is not a barbed wire fence, it is the Statue of Liberty.”
O’Malley went on to say that America’s role of world leadership should be one of morality and compassion, referencing the estimated 9 million refugees who have fled Syria since a civil war began in the country in 2011.
The question of who has responsibility for taking in the refugees has prompted international debate in recent months as the number of immigrants has increased, with many European countries split on how many refugees they are willing to accept. The U.S. has so far taken a background role, accepting 1,500 refugees, though the White House announced in September plans to accept 10,000 more.
O’Malley has been vocal in his commitment to provide American support to refugees, and was the first candidate to respond affirmatively to a request from the International Rescue Committee to the U.S. government to accept at least 65,000 Syrian refugees by 2016. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has also announced support for the request.
“If Germany, a country with one-fourth our population, can accept 800,000 refugees this year, another half million in subsequent years, surely we can accept 65,000,” O’Malley said.
Before O’Malley’s speech, three recent immigrants to the United States addressed the crowd about the hardships they faced leaving the Middle East for the United States to provide their children with safer lives and more opportunities.
O’Malley spoke with them in a session also open to press to discuss improvements to the American immigration process.
Troy resident Noor Al Dabbagh, who arrived in January 2014 from Iraq with her husband and son, told O’Malley about her and her husband’s long wait to receive a work authorization, which, she said, was particularly challenging because the money they had saved was running out.
Because her family had yet to receive asylum status, she said, they did not qualify for any government assistance for the unemployed or medical insurance to cover the costs of living.
Dearborn Heights resident Radhia Fakhrildeen spoke of leaving a prosperous life in Iraq behind to come to the United States in January 2014 with her children. She told O’Malley it has been particularly difficult to establish a life for her family in the United States because she has not been able to find a job and because her husband’s application to join her was denied.
In response to the immigrants’ stories, O’Malley said the immigration system must be modernized and families should not be broken up. He told media that there needs to be a new and better approach to balancing security concerns with the lengthy screening process that currently exists for individuals seeking entrance to the United States.
“I don’t believe that we should shortchange the background and the security checks, but I believe we have to act like lives depend on our being able to improve these processes and do a much better job of it quickly without cutting corners,” he said.
Speaking to reporters, he said the past of every American contains a story or an experience that could help them empathize with Syrian refugees.
“Our people were all once immigrant people, and that is the beauty of the United States of America,” he said. “With the exception of Native Americans, we were all once strangers in a strange land.”