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Prioritizing refugees

Lawmakers, having returned to Washington after Thanksgiving recess, are again taking up the question of resettling Syrian refugees in the United States.  This issue cries out for a solution that balances security concerns with our humanitarian impulse to help those in such dire need.

The House, in a rare bipartisan vote just before the recess, passed a bill to pause the refugee program until security concerns can be addressed.  However, Senate Democrats have vowed to block the House bill, choosing to focus instead on tightening the Visa Waiver Program and banning those on the terror watch list from purchasing guns.  Once again, the gears of Congress may be stuck in gridlock.

{mosads}And President Obama?  He continues to throw fuel on the fire by ridiculing those with whom he disagrees, particularly those presidential candidates who dared suggest we might prioritize Christian refugees.  Obama called it “shameful” and “not-American” to suggest, “that there would be a religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted…. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.” 

Actually, Mr. President, U.S. immigration law enshrines a test based on religion; a refugee is not simply someone who is fleeing a war-torn country, but rather someone who is fleeing persecution based on one’s religion, politics, nationality, or race.  Perhaps the president could read his State Department’s website, where the definition is very clear, “A refugee is someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” 

It is horrifically clear that Christians, Yazidis, and other non-Muslim religious minorities in ISIS territory are being persecuted for their religious views in the most barbarous ways.  According to U.S. law, they ought to be given priority for admittance as refugees.  There is nothing “shameful” about recognizing this reality and allowing the most vulnerable populations to be at the head of the line. 

As ISIS has taken their land, non-Muslims are told to convert, pay a tax, or be killed.  Christians and Yazidis have been terrorized, beheaded, forced from ancestral homelands; women and girls have been kidnapped and sold by the thousands into sexual slavery. 

Last month another 70,000 Christians were reported to flee Aleppo, but not before a 12-year-old boy was tortured, his fingertips cut off, and then crucified alongside his father who had refused to renounce his Christian faith.

Just last weekend, a third mass grave was discovered near Sinjar containing the bodies of Yazidi men and boys.  The women and girls had been taken to Raqqa to be sold. 

The United Nations says this may amount to genocide. Pope Francis has been long been calling for these persecutions to be labeled genocide.  In Congress, a bipartisan resolution (H. Con. Res. 75), sponsored by Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), would declare these atrocities to be labeled ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘war crimes’.   It is a good time for members to give the Fortenberry-Eshoo resolution a second look.

So why are such a tiny fraction of the refugees being resettled in the United States from persecuted Christian and Yazidi minorities?  One problem is that the United States generally only accepts refugees from the United Nations refugee camps.  But the Christians and Yazidis avoid the U.N. refugee camps because they face violence, kidnapping, and persecution there as well.  It is well documented that these minorities, fearing for their lives, opt for church-run camps instead, thereby excluding themselves from the refugee pipeline.  Obama and Congress could work together to change that process.

While it is heartbreaking to see the displacement of millions of people fleeing the war zone, it is also reasonable and lawful to have particular concern for those who have been singled out and targeted as “infidels.”  So yes, Mr. president, there is no “religious test for our compassion” towards anyone of any faith who has been displaced by ISIS, but those being disproportionally targeted for vicious torture, death, and sexual slavery deserve a higher level of consideration as they seek asylum on our shores.

Ferguson is senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association.

Tags Jeff Fortenberry

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