Some Perspective on Admitting Syrian Refugees

Aftermath of the 1920 Wall St. bombing, blamed first on Russian bolsheviks and later on Italian anarchists. (Photo via City Limits)

Aftermath of the 1920 Wall Street bombing, blamed first on Russian bolsheviks and later on Italian anarchists. (Photo via City Limits)

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, some Republican presidential candidates and governors of a number of states have urged that Syrian refugees be refused entry. In a series of statements issued on Nov. 17, Mayor Bill de Blasio countered these sentiments by stating that “we should not close our borders to any group of people fleeing the atrocities and horrors of terrorism.”

And he sought to reassure Muslims in the New York area, who have been subjected to police surveillance in their communities in the past, and may worry that such activities will be renewed. “Muslim New Yorkers are a crucial ally in the fight against terrorism,” said de Blasio. “ISIS does not discriminate and has killed members of many races and religion. The Muslim community is as deeply concerned about terrorism as other communities are. NYPD investigates the crime, not a group of people. That will not change.”

The flurry of remarks from Republican candidates worrying over the prospect of “refugee radicals” gaining entry into the U.S. betrays not only prejudice but also, writes Jarrett Murphy in City Limits, a lack of historical perspective.

[Carson] and the other GOP candidates were not exactly warm and fuzzy toward immigration before the attacks in the French capital, but have found a way to take an even harder line in their aftermath. Carson quipped [Sunday]  that admitting refugees now would require a “suspension of intellect.”

In fact, Carson’s idea—that we must block the admission of refugees because of the possibility that some of them might have violent radical tendencies—requires a suspension of historical context.

Fact is, the United States has been admitting people who mixed ideology and force for a century. We’ve somehow survived. And we’ve lived to regret it when we used the threat of their arrival to close our doors.

From Italian anarchists to Russian bolsheviks to German nationalists to members of the Irish Republican Army, a handful of immigrants did manage to bring their causes – and some violent episodes – along with them when they came to the U.S.

The main idea here is that for a very long time, from a long list of countries whose immigrants have overwhelmingly been important and positive parts of the American story, there have arrived on our shores a very small number of people who wedded ideology with violence and intended either to use force here or orchestrate the use of force overseas to accomplish their goals.

Murphy concedes that there are limits to historical parallels.

It’s always dangerous to treat historical similarities as equivalencies, so let’s not do that. ISIS appears to be a very different threat than the IRA or the JDL or virtually any other past movement. Many of those earlier violent groups did not see the U.S. or its citizens as enemies—their focus was on enemies in their homeland, and they were just operating here. Few militant groups have displayed reach, operational skill or brutality to rival ISIS.

Go to City Limits to read more of Murphy’s argument, and to learn why he thinks barring the door does more harm than good.

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