(RNS) “We were wrong.”
That’s how former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns summarized one of the most notorious episodes in the history of American refugee policy. In 1939, the MS Saint Louis carried 937 Jewish refugees towards our shores. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration denied the ship access to the U.S. and forced it to return to Europe. A third of the passengers died at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
Seventy-three years later, Burns apologized on behalf of the United States.
So too will a future American president one day apologize for the executive order signed by President Donald Trump.
There are more displaced persons in the world today than even during World War II. Trump’s response? He’s placed a barbaric 120-day moratorium on any refugees entering the country, slashed the ceiling of refugee admissions in half, placed an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria, and allowed only minority groups to be resettled from majority Muslim countries.
Syrian refugees have already managed to survive relentless bombing and shelling of their homes, businesses, hospitals, and schools. They have suffered through the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and will now be singled out for punishment.
It gets worse.
The president’s actions single out an entire group of people for discrimination based on their religion. Trump has instructed U.S. officials to prioritize admissions of non-Muslim refugees who are fleeing their countries because of religious persecution. The targeting of Muslim-majority countries for restrictions and exemptions of non-Muslims amounts to the “Muslim ban” Trump campaigned on.
Here’s one refugee helped by the Syrian Community Network who may be affected by this order:
Eiman, who didn’t want her last name used, was recently resettled in Chicago with her three children and her daughter-in-law. She is awaiting the arrival of her oldest son, his wife and their newborn daughter. They are supposed to be arriving any day now from Jordan. They have gone through all of the medical tests, plus the cultural and language orientations.
Eiman and her family have been thoroughly vetted by our already strict processes. She was interviewed multiple times by various agents and officials asking her about her life in Syria, where she worked, who were her neighbors, why she left Syria, and was fingerprinted. She did not know why she was being asked so many questions but she complied, hoping it will help her family to be resettled. She wonders if she will be reunited with her son and her new granddaughter.
What would you tell Eiman and her family?
The truth is that the U.S. has a strong history of welcoming refugees and our values reject any type of religious test. But at times in our history, we have not lived up to those values.
Trump’s executive order is not only contrary to our values, it will also make the U.S. less safe. We should go after terrorists based on evidence, not single out an entire group based on their religion. The U.S. is wrongly targeting all Muslims and reinforcing the idea that we are in a holy war with Islam. Can such a policy lead to anything other than more terrorism?
We must raise our voices now and defend our values. We do not ban people from the country based on their religion. We welcome refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries. We must not let fear and lack of understanding divide us. We are strongest as a nation when we reaffirm our values.
This isn’t about political party or religious background. People of all faiths and political ideologies must come together to defend our American ideals. Tell Trump and your local officials to reverse this executive order.
“(T)o the survivors of the MS St. Louis, on behalf of the president and secretary of state,” Deputy Secretary Burns said in 2012, “I am honored to say what we should have said so long ago: welcome.”
We can stop our president from doing something we’ll all regret and apologize for in the future. Let’s say “welcome” when it matters the most: now.
(Suzanne Akhras Sahloul is executive director of the Syrian Community Network. Catherine Orsborn is director of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, a coalition of 34 religious denominations and faith-based organizations that works against religious bigotry and discrimination)