Why Syrian refugees are welcome in Washington

Last week the world witnessed the latest in a series of atrocities committed by the terrorist organization ISIS. These attacks were not just against the people of Paris or Beirut, but on all of us.

ISIS is a terrorist organization. It is a terrorist organization that the world must unite against. I am glad to see U.S. and French forces and our allies acting strongly in Syria. The terror of ISIS is felt daily by millions of Syrians attempting to flee from a near-certain fate of brutality or death. These families are fleeing a level of daily destruction and violence that few of us in the United States have thankfully ever known.

Gov. Jay Inslee, Washington
Source: The Office of Governor Jay Inslee
Gov. Jay Inslee, Washington
"Our nation is built on a proud history of providing refuge for the poor, persecuted and disenfranchised. Every state in this nation has been made better by those who have chosen to move here to escape persecution or extreme poverty."

Unfortunately, in the days following the Paris attack, many people are channeling their fear and anger against ISIS into fear and anger against Syrians and Muslims. Even here in Washington state, a place that has been a leader on equality and inclusion, a Republican state lawmaker is publicly calling Islam "barbarian medievalism" and proclaiming the religion "is incompatible with Western civilization."

More than half the nation's governors have said they want to ban Syrian refugees from entering their states. They are talking about turning away people — half of them children — whose lives are in peril.

This is particularly disturbing, in part, because as a matter of federal law, governors don't have the power to stop refugees from settling in their states. The result has been a fast spread of fear, anxiety and misinformation about who these refugees are and how they enter our nation.

There is no disagreement that we must have a stringent and extensive application process and background checks for all refugees. Governors are correct to insist that the federal government remain vigilant and protect our citizens. Calls for safety are appropriate. Calls to turn away those escaping terror — even young children left parentless — are callous and ignorant.

I was among a group of governors briefed this week by officials from the White House and the departments of Homeland Security, State, and Health and Human Services. The Obama administration understands there are legitimate concerns about the safety and security of our residents.

I heard these officials reaffirm that refugees will continue to go through the highest level of security screening of any category of traveler to the United States. It is a multi-layered screening process that involves the use of biographic and biometric information, including background checks and fingerprints. That information is screened against multiple law enforcement and counterterrorism databases. There are multiple in-person interviews, and each screening is again reviewed by a supervisor.

Because of the particular conditions regarding the Syrian crisis, there are additional security screens in place for Syrian refugees. The State Department assured us that it will continually monitor the process to ensure we have the strongest possible safeguards in place to provide refuge to those who need it while keeping out those who would seek to harm us.

On top of the misguided and divisive language we've heard from some about Syrian refugees, there is also a lot of misinformation about the type of people who flee from persecution. The State Department prioritizes the highest-risk and most-vulnerable groups of people — children, the elderly, and victims of torture or abuse. About half of all Syrian refugees are children.

America has many national security challenges and the fight against ISIS is one of them; innocent children and families fleeing persecution is not.

Our nation is built on a proud history of providing refuge for the poor, persecuted and disenfranchised. Every state in this nation has been made better by those who have chosen to move here to escape persecution or extreme poverty. We are more resilient, I hope, than to let the likes of ISIS break our spirit and splinter our identity. Compassion, hope and opportunity are some of the most fundamentally American values that we should fight like hell to protect.

Commentary by Jay Inslee, the 23rd governor of the state of Washington. He is a fifth-generation Washingtonian and former congressman who served in both Eastern and Western Washington. Follow him on Twitter @GovInslee