In Georgia, wariness and compassion as residents debate accepting refugees

Georgia's governor was one of more than 30 this week who called for a halt to accepting Syrian refugees. Gov. Nathan Deal's executive order also called for reopening investigations into already settled refugees' backgrounds.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Retired Army Lt. Col. David O’Hara doesn't see his hometown of Covington, Ga., as a likely terrorist target, but says he supports Gov. Nathan Deal's executive order telling state agencies to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees. 'We need to make sure we know who is walking through the door,' says O’Hara.

Retired Army Lt. Col. David O’Hara is pretty sure of one thing: If an ISIS agent were to slip into the US among a growing stream of Syrian refugees, his sleepy Georgia hometown likely wouldn’t be a target.

“They’d look for something flashier,” he says.

Despite the lack of a perceived threat, however, Mr. O’Hara firmly supports an executive order signed by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal this week that directs “state agency heads to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Georgia.”

The order is one of more than 30 legally shaky directives issued by primarily Republican governors to at least temporarily halt resettlement efforts by the US State Department after the attacks on Paris last Friday.

“We need to make sure we know who is walking through the door,” says O’Hara as he watches city workers erect the annual Christmas display, complete with giant candy canes and Santa’s workshop, on the Covington town square. “We need to slow down and wrap our hands around what we’re dealing with here.”

The trim Vietnam veteran is among a majority of Americans opposed to a White House policy to expand the refugee resettlement to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the wake of last Friday’s attacks in Paris. Seven of the attackers, as well as the now-slain mastermind, were French and Belgian nationals. But concerns that militants could hide among the wave of refugees fleeing civil war grew after a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the terrorists.

Fears that ISIS could deliver a surprise blow somewhere in the US has created a “real Catch-22” for many Americans, says Rob Dye, an Atlanta wine salesman.

“This feels like a no-win situation” to many people, says Mr. Dye. “There’s a real threat, but at the same time, how do you say no to people” displaced by war and terror?

In the wake of the Paris attacks, which killed 129 people, Americans have been weighing wariness against the humanitarian impulses of a superpower built by immigrants.

On Thursday, the US House of Representatives passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015 by a vote of 289 to 137, with 47 Democrats voting in favor. The bill, which faces a presidential veto, proposes to temporarily halt the Syrian refugee program.

President Obama warned this week against letting security anxieties dampen America's at-times halting tradition of compassion toward the helpless, saying in a speech in Turkey that “we are not well served when ... we descend into fear and panic” after a terror attack.

For their part, proponents of the refugee program have labeled state refugee bans cruel, even damaging to counter-terrorism efforts. They say accepting refugees is the ethically right thing to do, and that concerns are overblown, given that the US spends up to two years vetting applicants and that only 2 percent of the refugees are military-aged men.

Georgetown University’s Daniel Byman, a professor of security studies, warned in a recent article, “The true terrorism danger is that the refugees are not cared for or are welcomed briefly in a fit of sympathy and then scorned and repressed.”

Quinnipiac this week found that 53 percent of Americans opposed the expansion of the Syrian refugee program, which began before the Paris attacks. On Thursday, Gallup reported that this opposition has historic precedent: Polls have shown a resistance on the part of Americans to admit refugees, particularly in times of war or uncertainty, since at least 1939. At that time, 67 percent of Americans said they didn’t want Jewish refugee children to be brought from Germany after Kristallnacht.

Those troubled by security concerns say it isn’t helpful to brand them as heartless or xenophobic.

“People … need to have a more mature conversation about the seriousness of the problem facing some refugees, the presence of a migrant population seeking economic relief, the reality of security threats, and the challenges of resettlement,” writes Mollie Zigler Hemingway, a senior editor at The Federalist, a conservative website. “Preserving security is a form of loving your near neighbors. Welcoming the foreigner is a form of loving other neighbors. These are at times competing concerns....”

Many Americans, including Mr. Dye, are weighing how to balance those competing concerns, especially since the Syrian civil war has created the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II. At least 10 million people have been displaced, including 4 million who have fled the country.

Dye says he has a Syrian-born friend whose sister is one of some 66 refugees who have settled in Georgia since the civil war began four years ago.

“She’s crying, she’s so terrified she’s going to be sent back” after Mr. Deal’s executive order, which includes opening investigations into already settled refugees’ backgrounds.

Fear “is a normal reaction to what happened in Paris, and there will be a sense of insecurity – that's what terrorism is – and it will succeed for a little while,” says Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, in New York. “Politicians ... are trying to say that we can't be 100 percent certain [that refugees are fully vetted], but we can be pretty certain that we have tremendous capacity to deter a whole range of plots, from lone wolf to organized attacks. While law enforcement can say we need to be vigilant, we don't need to panic.”

But many of those interviewed say they are concerned about the Islamic State’s new global focus, coming in the wake of not only the Paris attacks, but the bombed Russian jetliner and suicide attacks in Baghdad, Lebanon, and Turkey. 

“So many people in the US walk around like nothing could ever happen here,” says O’Hara. “That’s foolish.”

But others don’t see the refugee program as the most likely entry point for would-be terrorists. Dye, for one, agrees that the US should prepare for an attack, but he sees a more likely threat from Islamic State agents trying to slip across the Canadian border, not among refugees who are themselves fleeing terrorism.

“There’s no doubt that a wave of refugees provides a sea in which would-be terrorists can find it somewhat easier to swim,” Ross Douthat writes in The New York Times. But “there’s no reason to think that 10,000 or 25,000 or 50,000 new arrivals, seeded into well-educated diaspora populations across a nation of 300 million, are going to suddenly recreate the Paris banlieues in Louisiana or New Jersey.”

Adel Zahedi was one of those arrivals. Now an Atlanta investment banking consultant, he says he came to the US from Iran as an angry, disaffected 12-year-old, only to emerge into adulthood as a self-described “American patriot.”

His experiences growing up in Georgia and Tennessee turned into such deep affection for the US that he says his eyes well up when he sees “the red clay of Georgia” after returning from trips.

Mr. Zahedi says opposition to the Syrian refugees is an opportunity to seek understanding of what Americans really think, and why. He sees a parallel to the US gun debate, which has remained at the forefront amid a historic number of mass shootings over the last year.

“I personally hate guns … but I have total respect for people in Georgia who want to have guns and hunt and fish,” he says. “It’s part of the culture here. The way I feel is, I can’t come here and live in this country that’s given me everything, and now I want to change the gun situation. No. This is how it is.”

Zahedi says he supports Obama’s refugee expansion, which involves primarily women, children, and older people. But he says he isn’t surprised at the political resistance.

“I feel like these governors, because they represent the people of the state – all you’ve got to do is go to the local media Facebook page to see what people in this state think, which is, they don’t want anybody here – their actions just reflect what their constituents are feeling.”

At the same time, he says, many Americans don’t seem to grasp the complexity of the Syrian situation.

Zahedi says he’s not a refugee, but his mother immigrated with him, in part, to protect him from war.

“I’m a great example of someone who came to this country [under duress],” he adds.

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