A version of this column will appear in the December issue of The Business Monthly out Dec. 1.
By Len Lazarick
I was sitting in my grandson’s 2nd grade classroom in Arbutus on Tuesday for American Education Week, perusing e-mails on my iPhone while the kids made geometric figures with toothpicks and little marshmallows ― those that they didn’t eat ― when I got the statement from the governor’s office.
“As governor of Maryland, the safety and security of Marylanders remains my first priority,” said the e-mail. “Following the terrorist attacks on Paris just four days ago, and after careful consideration, I am now requesting that federal authorities cease any additional settlements of refugees from Syria in Maryland, until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety.”
It sounded different in tone and substance than what other Republican governors had said. It was not a demand, there was no threat to withhold benefits, and the request seemed reasonable. Hogan was asking for reassurances his constituents would be safe.
Diatribes from left and right
Then came the much longer diatribe from the America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland, which was “deeply saddened by Governor Larry Hogan’s request that the federal government not allow any more Syrian refugees to come to Maryland, a decision that goes against our common humanity.”
It went on to call the decision “immoral” and “blatantly illegal,” because federal law governs immigration. Which may be why Hogan was asking the federal government for assurances.
On the drive home, I was listening to talk radio and heard Republican Delegate Pat McDonough, the legislature’s premier immigrant basher, lambasting the Republican governor for his wimpy response. Then when I got home, I got a call from McDonough himself, whom I’ve known since the early 1980s when he was a Democratic delegate from East Baltimore (only his party and location have changed, not his populist politics).
McDonough wanted Hogan to totally ban Syrian refugees, and to deny state benefits to any who came.
Then as the day went on, Democrats piled on against Hogan’s stance. “Not just heartless … [but] a betrayal of America’s values,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, running for U.S. Senate, said, “It is shameful that Governor Hogan and others would seek to exploit peoples’ justifiable safety concerns by further fueling their fears. We can protect our security and uphold our values by carefully vetting refugees fleeing the horror of ISIS. Leadership requires soberly confronting the facts, not a stampede toward demagoguery.”
The Van Hollen email was headlined, “Statement on Hogan Request to Close the Door to Syrian Refugees.”
Other Democrats responded in a similar vein, but it seemed that the anti-immigrant McDonoughs of the world had much more to complain about than the Democrats, who seemed caught up in their own demagoguery.
A Goldilocks statement
Then I got an e-mail from Nikki Gamer, a former WYPR producer now at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the Baltimore headquarters of international relief efforts of the U.S. Catholic Church. She put me in touch with Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy for CRS.
We in the Kelley-Lazarick household are big fans of, and medium-size donors to, CRS, and not just because it was long headed by Ken Hackett, a fellow Boston College alum who is now U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
CRS has folks on the ground all over the globe, both American and native. They are super efficient, have low administrative costs and, by the way, they get the bulk of their funding from the U.S. government, which knows that all the religious relief organizations are much more efficient than federal bureaucrats.
What O’Keefe told me has now been reiterated by many other independent sources familiar with U.S. immigration policy and practice.
Only about 2,300 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States “through an extensive vetting process” that takes 18 months to two years. “It’s so long that it’s a problem.” Most of them have lived in refugee camps. These are not the folks who have entered Europe illegally through Greece. “If there any red flags, people are excluded,” he said.
White House defends system
Later Tuesday evening, the White House sought to reassure the governors in a conference call with top administration officials in charge of the vetting. Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford was on the line.
According to the White House: “The call lasted almost 90 minutes, including an extensive question and answer session among the governors and administration officials. The officials briefed the governors on the rigorous screening and security vetting process that is required before a refugee is able to travel to the United States. Thirteen governors asked questions.
“The administration officials reiterated what the President has made abundantly clear: that his top priority is the safety of the American people. That’s why, even as the United States accepts more refugees — including Syrians — we do so only after they undergo the most rigorous screening and security vetting of any category of traveler to the United States.”
Other sources disagree with the effectiveness of the immigration process, such as Republican Richard Douglas in a Maryland Reporter commentary, a former counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, now running for the Senate in Maryland.
“The President ignores the fact that U.S. immigration systems have been so badly damaged by his own lawlessness that Americans do not trust the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to vet anyone,” writes Douglas. “Indeed, DHS can hardly manage its internal paper flow, much less migrant flows into our nation.”
Few problems with refugees
Only a few people from Syria or Iraq who came to the U.S. under the refugee program have even committed crimes, no less terrorism. True, the U.S. has scant means for checking the validity of the Syrian refugee claims, but most terrorists are young and single, not married with children. And most are native, as was the case in Paris. Some of these terrorists had been to Syria, but they grew up in France or Belgium.
Our terrorists are likely to be Americans. Yes, some are Muslim, like the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, who grew up here and went to American schools. And they were not refugees; they initially entered the country on tourist visas.
Hogan’s statement was a middle ground likely supported by many Marylanders. Did Hogan or his staff know of the refugee vetting process or trust it? Hard to say, but he certainly recognizes that no governor can tell immigrants they can’t come to his state once the federal government lets them in. And as the ACLU shouts out, they can’t be discriminated against due to race, religion or country of origin.
Democrats are likely to turn any small stick into a club against Hogan, especially now that his cancer is in remission. And the Republican far right is not likely to be happy with a position that seeks the kind of middle political ground that got Hogan elected.