‘Civil Discussion’ Needed on Refugee Matters: MHRC Executive Director

Press release from the Nashville-Davidson Metro Human Relations Commission, Nov. 20, 2015:

Statement from Melody Fowler-Green, MHRC Executive Director:

This week we have watched a public battle rage over refugee resettlement in Tennessee in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris. We witnessed a war of words with impulsive language, irrational demands, and pointed fingers. Given the raw emotions and fear, it cannot be called a “civil discussion.”

Although that is exactly what is required now. We should not condemn those who want to have a real conversation about our nation’s security measures.

In fact, it is our responsibility as a civil society to discuss how far we are collectively willing to go to ensure our safety. However, this needs to be a discussion that respects facts and history and is sensitive to the consequences of rhetoric for our neighbors here in Nashville.

Facts and history show that our security does not require the abandonment of core American values. More than 250,000 people have died since the violence broke out in Syria in 2011, and at least 11 million people in the country of 22 million have fled their homes. Syrians are now the world’s largest refugee population, fleeing terrorism and persecution. Withdrawing our support now for the victims of this crisis is surrendering to fear and xenophobia. We are not made safer by refusing to accept refugees into our communities. To the contrary, providing safe refuge for families in circumstances that are frankly unimaginable for most Americans bolsters our moral standing in the global community. Our safety relies in large part on projecting American ideals to the world.

Facts and history show that the federal system for vetting and settling refugees is safe and effective. To be clear, that refugee or migrant movements might include terrorists has always been a threat. It is part of the risk of welcoming strangers in need, and we know that. It is precisely why we have rigorous and extensive screening procedures for refugees who seek to come to the United States, including those from Syria. There is a careful vetting process that includes our intelligence community, our National Counter Terrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland Security. Local and state officials who suggest that the federal government cannot be trusted to do this work appear to be engaging in partisan propaganda and are not making us safer. Nor are their fears based in fact. The federal government has been safely and successfully resettling refugees from war-torn predominantly Muslim countries for decades. Since 1996, about 22,000 refugees have resettled in Tennessee, with 63% of those in Davidson County. Many more have moved here from other states. Fifty percent have come from countries and regions with large Muslim populations including Iraq, Iran, Kurdistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Like those currently fleeing Syria, many of the refugees already resettled here were fleeing violence from terrorist organizations. Despite the fact that there has always been a risk that terrorists might exploit the movement of refugees, no refugees have been connected to extremist violence or terrorism in the United States, much less in Tennessee.

Facts and history show that refugees from Muslim nations have not compromised our safety here in Middle Tennessee. Rather, refugees and immigrants from all over the world have contributed significantly to our cultural and economic success. Local universities, government agencies, corporations based in Davidson County, and our area chamber of commerce all tout our diverse and welcoming community to attract and retain talent and business. Refugees and immigrants work in all sectors of our economy, add to our tax base, enrich our cultural institutions, and are important players in our entrepreneurial growth.

Any civil discussion about refugee resettlement in Middle Tennessee must include this entire context. It must also recognize that whether and how refugees are admitted is a federal matter, but that local rhetoric has a real impact on peaceful law-abiding refugee and immigrant families here in our Nashville community. This week we have heard bombastic and Islamophobic language and ideas from elected state officials, on social media, and on our streets. History suggests that this will result in a greater number of hate crimes and increased discrimination in workplaces and schools. Our Muslim and foreign-born neighbors will experience increased feelings of marginalization from society and rejection by fellow citizens. As a result, these community members are at risk of isolating themselves, reticent to collaborate with law enforcement agencies and public officials for fear of mistreatment and retribution. This does not make us safer.

I expect that we will continue the local conversation about our role in alleviating suffering for refugees. It’s also fine if that conversation seeks to balance our generosity with our need for security. But let’s urge our elected officials, our neighbors, and our friends to make it a civil discussion that respects our American and our Nashvillian values.