Why my state won't turn refugees away

Story highlights

  • Jack Markell: I take no responsibility more seriously than the safety of our residents
  • But we should rally around the President's call for compassion on refugee issue, he says

Jack A. Markell is the governor of Delaware. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)We know that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Yet that sentiment has been lost in the politicized attempts to fight President Barack Obama's push to accept more Syrian refugees. Our state and national leaders would do well to remember a tragic incident from our past in which people fleeing from danger in their country were denied a compassionate response by ours.

In May, 1939, a few months before the German invasion of Poland and the start of World War II, nearly 1,000 German Jews approached South Florida aboard a ship called St. Louis. They had been denied entry to Cuba and hoped to receive sympathy from American leaders who knew of the severe discrimination they faced at home.
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Instead, our government enforced the strict quotas in place at the time. Forced to return home, more than 500 were trapped by Germany's European conquests and about half of those died in the Holocaust.
    The fact that so many of these men, women, and children were sentenced to death camps because of U.S. laws restricting immigration reminds us of what the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child so eloquently said: "Law is not law, if it violates the principles of eternal justice."
    Vast differences exist between that situation and the humanitarian crisis that has led millions of Syrians to flee the devastating violence and horrifying conditions of their war-torn country. The sheer numbers of refugees are much greater, and the solutions more challenging. But they are attempting to leave dire situations at home -- sometimes akin to ethnic cleansing -- in hope of a better life.
    I'm again reminded of Child's quote as many politicians reflexively jump to take the harshest possible stance against these refugees, seeking to scare Americans with rhetoric that demands changes to our policies with no basis in the facts of our refugee system. Perhaps most frightening is the explicit appeals by some presidential candidates to discriminate against refugees on the basis of religion -- an idea that directly contradicts one of our oldest and dearest values.
    The refugees that President Obama and supporters of his approach are talking about are families in desperate straits. According to the United Nations, about half of these individuals are children -- a group particularly at risk of falling ill, being malnourished, or suffering from abuse or exploitation. They continue to run toward the harsh weather of a European winter and take other tremendous risks, because anything is better than the chaos that has engulfed their homeland.
    As the highest-ranking official of my state, I take no responsibility more seriously than the safety of our residents. No one should suggest relaxing our process for approving refugees in any way. The situation in Syria in particular demands that we take every precaution before admitting someone inside our borders. But we must show empathy by taking into account their individual situations and ensuring they are treated humanely.
    Rather than use the attacks in Paris to make a political statement about closing our border to people in dire need, let's understand the facts:
    • Refugee admissions are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of travelers;
    • Biographic and biometric information is vetted against a broad array of databases, including those of law enforcement and the intelligence community, to confirm an applicant's identity, check for criminal history, and identify information that can support the work of our trained interviewers;
    • A refugee applicant cannot be approved until all required security checks have been completed and cleared; and
    • The full process is finished before any Syrian refugee would be allowed to cross the Atlantic.
    The President has rightly kept his commitment to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States within a year.
    If his administration decides to place some of those refugees in Delaware, we will work with our federal partners, while expecting them to recognize the federal responsibility to provide or pay for services these individuals may need.
    The calls for states to reject them not only runs counter to our values, but also our law, which gives the federal government authority to place refugees and does not provide states the right to refuse.
    While parts of today's refugee crisis are difficult to compare with the time when the St. Louis approached our shores, our fundamental choice is the same. Instead of using the mourning in France to deny opportunity to thousands of innocent people, we should recall the most famous gift we received from the French -- the Statue of Liberty, with the famous inscription recognizing America as a place that welcomes "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
    We should rally around the President's call for compassion for a suffering population that wants nothing more than a safe place to rebuild their lives from the rubble of war.