Congressman Bill Pascrell

Representing the 9th District of NEW JERSEY

Pascrell on Syrian Refugees: ‘These Are Our Pilgrims’

Dec 3, 2015
Op-Ed

November 20, 2015 -- This week we are reminded that almost four centuries ago, a group of men, women, and children fled their homes and set sail across the ocean in search of a better life. They embarked upon this pilgrimage, seeking a land free of religious persecution. When the pilgrims finally made landfall, a kind and generous people opened their homes and shared their food.

Today, I am reminded of the over four million Syrian refugees who have been jettisoned from their homes, fleeing into an unknown future. I think of the children who, like 3-year-old Aylan Kurd, died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and contemplate the compassion the world showed when his plight was made public. These are our pilgrims.

Now, just a few months later, Congress is wrongly following the lead of some states in closing the door to those fleeing persecution by the same terrorist organization we have sworn to defeat. Even after the atrocious attacks in Paris, France has kept its doors open to these victims. Closing our doors would violate our core beliefs as Americans.

For the vast majority of us, our families came from other lands. I know my family did. When they arrived, they faced challenges and scrutiny, but in the end were afforded America’s acceptance. Every time a new set of people comes to our shores, we must remind ourselves that by allowing for diversity and receiving the world’s yearning masses with open arms, we define ourselves.

The world is experiencing arguably the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, especially in Syria where a complex conflict has devolved over the past four and a half years. The conflict started with peaceful protests against the government and transitioned to a violent sectarian civil war. A quarter-million Syrians have been killed and half of Syria’s 22 million people are displaced. Syria will be redefined by the outcome of this crisis, but our country will be redefined in the world’s eyes, judged by our actions and reactions at this critical juncture.

Our armed services and diplomatic teams are aligning a global coalition of 65 partners to destroy ISIL. But our actions must extend beyond airstrikes and negotiations. If we use religion as a tool to divide, we bolster recruiting efforts from marginalized communities across the globe and undermine our own constitutional commitments to religious freedom. Using religion as a litmus test on the parents and children most harmed by terrorism is shameful. This betrayal of our values is simply un-American.

Our commitment to public safety can be upheld even as we provide refuge to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, without discrimination. Refugees go through the most robust security screening process of any traveler to the United States. All refugees, including Syrians, are only resettled after successfully completing a thorough background check involving the National Counterterrorism Center, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, and Department of Defense. This multi-step process usually takes 18-24 months to complete and involves vetting all biographic and biometric information against law enforcement and intelligence community databases to confirm identities and ensure public safety.

No process is foolproof, but these security measures have been sufficient to safely resettle over 3 million refugees to all 50 States since 1975, including hundreds of thousands from the Middle East who built new lives and became part of our communities.

This week, as I join my family around the Thanksgiving table, I remain thankful the United States has resettled thousands of Syrian refugees with their families, but still know more should be done. I will continue to push for an expanded Priority Three family reunification program to reunite my Syrian American constituents with their affected family members, and fight for adequate resources so all refugees, including Syrians, are admitted only after successfully completing the security vetting process.

This Thanksgiving, let’s honor the compassion the Pilgrims were shown. Let’s not demonize orphans fleeing persecution. Let’s define ourselves once again as America, the compassionate. Let’s keep a seat open at our table this Thanksgiving.