Letters from the West

Conversations can combat fear of refugees

Syrian refugees arrive aboard a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece in September. The U.S. has plans to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year.
Syrian refugees arrive aboard a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece in September. The U.S. has plans to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year. AP

One of the few bright sides of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, was how this nation briefly came back together behind President George W. Bush.

Soon thereafter, Congress passed the Patriot Act that gave the federal government expanded power to collect information and go after suspected terrorists. Just three Republicans in the House of Representatives voted “no.” One of those was then-Congressman Butch Otter, who opposed what he believed was excessive government invasion. His courage in standing up to his own president and voting his Idaho values won him wide bipartisan support back home.

A month ago, when I wrote about the protest of the Three Percent Patriots against allowing refugees into Idaho, I learned that Otter had written the delegation to urge President Obama to provide more information about the security measure of the program. He stopped short of joining the call to halt the program, an apparent recognition of its place in the fundamental values of freedom-loving people.

That ended this week when he joined 30 other governors, just one a Democrat, who called for a halt to the program.

My initial reaction was to express disappointment that these leaders had played into the hands of the Islamic State extremists who seek to manipulate Western fears by including among its gang of killers in Paris a man who came into Europe along the refugee trail through Greece. Islamic State wanted to show its Sunni Muslim audience that Westerners hate them, or at best don’t care about them.

The Idaho congressional delegation stood with Otter. President Obama rejected their call to temporarily suspend the program, turning the debate into yet another predictable polarized standoff. Instead of post-9/11 unity, we have politics as usual — no single voice rising from the grassroots of America.

But I have spoken with many Idahoans who agree with the governors. Not that they want the program dismantled; but they want assurances the refugee program is as safe as it can be.

They have been calling Otter and their congressmen by the hundreds, urging them to stop the refugee resettlement program.

Sen. Mike Crapo’s office, for instance, counted 14 calls in favor of taking refugees to 553 against on Monday and Tuesday, Communications Director Lindsay Nothern said.

So Idaho leaders are seeing and hearing the fear expressed by their Idaho constituents, and reacting to that. That’s listening, not hating.

Contrast their position with that of Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, who is calling for a special session of the Idaho Legislature to “draft emergency legislation to address the refugee crises.”

Scott says Muslim immigrants only come here “as part of waging jihad.” She wants Idaho to be able to approve every single refugee that comes into the state. Her rhetoric on her state-sponsored newsletter makes it clear that she would not approve any Muslims coming into the state. Imagine if Idahoans were singled out in the same manner.

Otter has called for a pause to ensure that vetting procedures are adequate. Those procedures already include 14 steps, such as background checks, interviews, fingerprinting and other measures added since 9/11.

These safeguards take a year and a half to two years or more to complete. If Islamic State wants to get a terrorist into the United States, it’s unlikely they would use this route. It would be easier to enlist one of the American citizens among its ranks, or even send someone from Europe on a simple travel visa.

But if the process can be improved, refugee advocates are for it.

Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, explained the process to a crowd in Boise earlier this week.

“If it can be made stronger, I think that certainly should happen…,” he said, according to the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell. “It’s really important that we do a thorough job of vetting people coming into this country.”

So let’s have that conversation. Lets allay folks’ fears. Let’s find the national consensus to repeat Franklin Roosevelt’s words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Talk to the Syrian refugees who are already here. Thirty-five refugees from Syria have arrived in Idaho in the past six months, 20 of them children.

They are people who lived as well or better than do many of us in Idaho, until their world was rocked by war and repression. When you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner next week, pray that you and your family don’t face the same.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker