Victoria Noble: Dear Governor Snyder

Sunday, November 22, 2015 - 6:34pm

Dear Gov. Snyder,

I campaigned for you in 2014 because I thought that your pragmatic, common-sense leadership was taking the state in the right direction. You balanced our budget, grew our economy and did your best to elevate the governor’s office above the political fray. I believed that you were the kind of leader who made rational, tough choices, politics be damned — the kind of governor Michigan needed.

I still think you’re that kind of leader. But your decision to request the president to “pause” before admitting additional refugees into the state and country on the heels of the Paris terrorist attacks didn’t reflect the sound, judicious decision-making that I’ve come to expect from your choices.

You defended your decision as apolitical, sensible and in the best interest of Michigan’s security. But, given the widely publicized xenophobic fearmongering by some high-profile Republican presidential candidates this fall, I find it hard to believe that your decision was based solely on a desire to protect Michiganders.

There isn’t any substantial evidence — let alone definitive proof — that any of the attackers entered Europe through a refugee program. Most of the terrorists were born in Europe. Two possibly entered Europe by way of Greece, but it’s believed that they snuck in through Greece’s borders — not through a refugee program complete with the strict background checks that characterize the United States’ asylum process.

Even if the Paris attackers had been granted formal entry to Europe through a refugee program, it still wouldn’t have justified a reduction in the United States’ refugee admittance. There are simply too many substantive differences in both the number of refugees entering and the differences in ability to impose stricter background check requirements between Europe and the United States.

Between January and August of this year, an estimated 350,000 refugees immigrated to Europe, often through southern European nations already suffering from economic and political instability. The huge numbers of refugees at European borders on any given day have overwhelmed the European Union’s efforts to screen each individual. Once inside the EU, they can travel between countries without facing border checks or additional screening.

Geographically removed from the crisis in the Middle East, the United States doesn’t face these same pressures, and consequently, the United States admits far fewer refugees. The United States plans to accommodate 10,000 Syrian refugees next year. Just 200 Syrian refugees have resettled in Michigan this year. That’s a far cry from the 800,000 refugees Germany alone expects to cross its borders this year. And unlike in Europe, where mass cross-border flows of people make extensive background checks difficult, the United States subjects each refugee to a rigorous review process and background check that lasts 12 to 18 months on average.

You were right to call on the Obama administration to take measures to prevent ISIS from attacking the United States. Given ISIS’ repeated threats against the West, an attempted attack on United States soil doesn’t seem to be a question of if, but rather, when.

But focusing on refugees ignores the real vulnerabilities in United States border security, and reflects a basic misunderstanding of where ISIS’ true strength lies. ISIS has proven itself adept in using unconventional communication channels to connect with people overseas.

This is crucial to their overall strategy, allowing them to turn naturalized Europeans and Americans into ISIS fighters. Most of the Paris attackers were Europeans. Mohammed Emwazi, a British ISIS operative, killed at least seven Western hostages in Syria. Of the 68 people arrested in the United States for supporting ISIS activity thus far, 55 are American citizens and 43 were born in the United States. None were Syrian.

However, the fact that European and American ISIS operatives pose a statistically larger threat to the United States doesn’t preclude a threat from any other group, including refugees. The United States should maintain its high standards for background checks into refugees’ personal and family history. But with some of the strictest standards in the world, it’s hard to envision a scenario where this purely hypothetical threat justifies barring some of the world’s most vulnerable people from seeking refuge in the United States

You were the first governor to attempt to bar refugee resettlement. In doing so, you ignited a political firestorm. Half of United States governors have now refused to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in their states.

You told National Public Radio that you thought your position on refugee resettlement was “a thoughtful, common-sense one.” But if common sense tells us anything, it’s that we should update our positions when it becomes clear they are misguided.

You have the opportunity to show the country that you are still the same considerate, principled and objective leader you demonstrated yourself to be in the past. Leveraging the new details that evidence refugees did not carry out the Paris attacks, you should rise above the fear that has clouded our country’s judgment. Reverse your decision to try to bar Middle Eastern refugees from resettling in Michigan.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.