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Syrian refugee vetting process is tough enough

In the wake of the Paris attacks, images of support and grief flooded the media and glimmers of the best of humanity emerged. The people of France were not alone.

Sadly, the news cycle quickly turned. Suddenly, 27 U.S. governors vowed to do everything in their power to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. Just a few weeks before the Paris attacks, some of these same governors were ready to welcome Syrian refugees with open arms after witnessing families and young children dying from the treacherous journey to safety from extremists.

The reality of the refugee process is far more stringent than these governors seem to think. I know this firsthand, because for the past eight years, I have worked for a refugee resettlement agency. I've seen that the United States is one of the most difficult countries for refugees to be accepted into resettlement. Earlier this year, President Obama announced the U.S.'s willingness to embrace Syrian refugees and increased the number we would resettle to 10,000. This announcement did not mean Syrians would be arriving on American soil quickly. They must still go through refugee processing abroad. The refugees identified to arrive as new immigrants to the U.S. are the most vetted folks to set foot on our land. They go through interviews, several databases of security checks, and careful review by the Department of Homeland Security. No other group goes through such rigor.

Refugees, by legal definition, are the most vulnerable people in the world. They are being, or will be, persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. So what really rattled me during the influx of governors' statements was when Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, "We are working on measures to ensure … that Texans will be kept safe from those refugees."

Texans, and all Americans, do not need to be kept safe from "those refugees." Most refugees spend anywhere from 3 to 20 years in refugee camps waiting to rebuild their lives. We do not need more stringent procedures. They are already in place. Instead, we need to bring this vulnerable population into the fold and tell them they are safe, life will begin anew, and a future will exist for them. The state governors and politicians pollute American values by using the recent terrorist attacks as a political platform.

What's more, they cannot legally block refugees from resettling in their states. Authority to approve the number of refugees coming to the U.S. lies with the president and his administration under the department of state. Refugees, once in the United States, have what they were missing in the countries they fled from. Freedom. This means that they are free to live anywhere just like any other person.

The governors' reactionary responses not only makes them look ignorant, but also paints residents of their states in the same negative light. This angers me profoundly. I am a proud Texan, born in a small town, and raised in Houston. I am also the daughter of immigrants. My mother and her family fled their own civil war in China and but for the graciousness of other countries may not have survived. The first family member on my father's side to live in the United States received protection from our government because he faced certain persecution based on his political opinions. I was fortunate to be born in the U.S. because this country helped those in need, so I empathize with these refugees.

I heard the ugly rhetoric today, and it made me cringe. For anyone who is from Texas or has lived there for some time, there's a bumper sticker that you'll often see around from non-natives. "I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!" It is a saying that shows the welcoming nature of Texans and our acceptance of newcomers to be a part of the Lone Star State. Governor Abbott's statements and actions sully the proud history of Texas. All of these governors would do well to remember what being an American really means, and blocking refugees seeking safety from persecution ain't it.


Commentary by Tammy Lin, immigration attorney and member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.