Students, faculty respond to Snyder's refugee stance

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 - 9:01pm

In wake of terrorist attacks in Paris that left 129 dead, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder joined 31 governors in vowing to pause the entry of Syrian refugees into their states.

Early reports indicated that one the attackers may have been a refugee from Syria, though officials now say that theory was likely incorrect. Even so, that notion stoked fears that ISIS fighters would enter the country along with the refugees fleeing their violent campaigns.

In response, LSA senior Sarah Raoof and Public Health students Tala Dahbour and Reem Kashlan launched a letter-writing campaign on Facebook. The campaign encourages students to visit the “Share your Opinion” page on the governor’s website to send either a pre-written or personal letter expressing opposition to his plan to block Syrian refugees.

So far, 190 people have signed up to participate, and the group plans to set up a table in Mason Hall to gather more support. Raoof said their efforts may include a petition to the governor.

“We have received positive feedback from students on campus and willingness to join us in spreading the word,” she said.

Dahbour said feelings of frustration with the state’s unfair treatment of refugees inspired the campaign. She also said she was disappointed that people quickly blamed refugees for the Paris terror attacks.

“As refugees are accused of the very terror they are trying to flee from, we dehumanize them and silence their narratives,” she said. “They are now being denied safety, a basic human right, based on their background and/or religious affiliation.”

She said refugees already have to go through a multi-step program to enter the United States — a process which typically takes one to two years — and said moves to prevent their entry is rooted in prejudice, not security.

Business sophomore Sunny Demirjian fled Syria as a refugee in 2012 with her siblings to come to Michigan and live with their grandmother. She said the transition was difficult and it took them about a year to adjust to life in the United States. On top of that, they were rarely able to speak to their parents due to difficulties communicating with people in the country. Demirjian’s parents were able to come a few years later.

“It’s very underestimated how much immigrants go through when they leave their country,” Demirjian said. “It’s just such a struggle, especially for the parents because they are literally giving up everything they have and even their future to provide for their kids, and also for the kids.”

Since his initial announcement, Snyder has clarified that Syrian refugees already in the process of coming to Michigan before the attacks will not be prevented from entering. However, some legal scholars say governors actually have little authority to prevent refugees from entering their states, and say the decisions are largely made by the federal government. In September, Snyder said he was working with the Department of Homeland Security to help with the resettlement of refugees in Michigan.

On Sunday, his office released a statement saying Michigan would not accept any refugees until the state investigated the screening process further. He later penned an op-ed in Time Magazine titled, “We Must Welcome Refugees — After Screening Them.”

“I let it be known that Michigan can be a place where thousands can experience safety and freedom—and a growing community where they will be embraced and comforted by a support network,” he wrote. “It’s the right thing for us to do as Michiganders, and the right thing for us to do as Americans. But the events of recent weeks, including the violence in Paris, Beirut and the skies over Egypt, remind us of the dangers our world faces from extremists who are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their methods of doing us harm.”

History Prof. Pamela Ballinger, whose work focuses on the history of human rights, said the response is alarming.

“The growing chorus of governors who wish to block resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states is a worrisome, yet sadly predictable, response to the terror attacks in Paris,” she said. “These governors displace blame onto the literally displaced, victims forced to flee their homes as a result of the same extremist violence that shook Paris last week. Such a view ignores that the U.S. commitment to take Syrian refugees is already low, as well as the fact that the process of refugee vetting in the U.S. is a slow and careful one.”

Unlike proposed measures in other states, Snyder said Michigan’s ban is only temporary, and would be revoked after the state reviews the federal government’s screening process for refugees.

“It's disappointing that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, whose previous pro-immigration and pro-refugee stances had distinguished him from the majority of his fellow Republicans, has joined those calling for a halt to Syrian resettlement,” Ballinger said. “To be fair, Snyder has not closed the door on accepting refugees, instead urging caution and a ‘pause.’ This contrasts with those politicians — notably New Jersey’s Chris Christie — who apparently find even tiny orphans a threat. Nor has Snyder indulged in the ‘Christians only’ rhetoric of Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush.”

Law Prof. James Hathaway, who directs the Law School’s Program in Refugee and Asylum Law, expressed similar sentiments.

“Governor Snyder’s reluctance to welcome Syrian refugees to Michigan is very, very sad,” Hathaway said. “The United States is accepting only an incredibly tiny share — less than one-fourth of 1 percent — of the Syrians who have been forced to flee their homes, and who are entitled to international protection.  For so many U.S. governors to refuse to do their fair share to reach out to these victims of brutal violence is just shameful.”

Not only does Hathaway find it embarrassing for the state, he sees the move as a recantation of the freedoms the United States promises.

“It makes a mockery of their commitment to freedom and justice for all, as those coming are the victims of the brutality we say we condemn,” Hathaway said. “It is also ridiculous for governors to rationalize their isolationist posture on security grounds, as refugees resettled to the U.S. must undergo an incredibly thorough vetting process before they are allowed to travel here. So let’s condemn this action for what it is: knee-jerk, uninformed and not worthy of America.”

However, while Demirjian said she believes refugees should be let in, she understands why states can’t take in everyone.

“From a humanitarian perspective, I’d say they should definitely let the people in,” Demirjian said. “However, when you look at it from Michigan as a state, from their perspective, they just want to maintain their bounds in terms of how many people are there and in terms of job availability. They just don’t want to gather further burden on them because these people are coming in looking for resources to survive. So makes sense logically, but I know it's not the best in terms of a humanitarian perspective.”