Berkshire lawmakers, professor say Syrian refugees should be welcomed, not excluded


State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier welcomed Gov. Charlie Baker's softening his position on refugees from war-torn countries after comments on Monday saw Baker "lumped in" with "strident, isolationist governors" vowing to block federal efforts to resettle migrants, she said.

"I think it was a quick response to a reporter's question, and sometimes it's hard to make quick responses on difficult issues," Farley-Bouvier said. "Ultimately, I hope he agrees with us that the best way to keep our country safe is to continue to live by our values and be welcoming to refugees."

Baker said on Monday he was not currently interested in having the state accept additional Syrian refugees in the aftermath of last week's attacks in Paris, saying the safety of Massachusetts residents was his first priority.

The comments associated Baker with Republican governors vowing to oppose or even defy President Obama's plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. They drew criticism from many Massachusetts politicians, including U.S. Sen. Edward Markey.

"We should not close our hearts or our doors to the women, children and families that are fleeing the Middle East to escape war and the daily terror, violence and chaos it brings," Markey said. "America has always been a refuge for the persecuted and oppressed. We can't turn our back on our history or on those fleeing to find a shred of safety."

But on Friday, Baker distanced himself, refusing to sign a letter to Obama signed by 27 fellow GOP governors asking to suspend all resettlement efforts concerning Syrian refugees and saying he believes Massachusetts "has a role in welcoming refugees," in a statement.

Heated national feuding on immigration provided a backdrop to Baker's comments. On Thursday, a U.S. House vote saw Republicans in unison and 47 Democrats vote to halt Obama's resettlement program and erect huge barriers to Syrian migrants.

The House bill would require the FBI to create a background check of any refugee who spent time in Syria or Iraq after March 1, 2011. It also called for the heads of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and National Intelligence to personally vouch that those admitted aren't a threat.

According to the Washington Post, a State Department spokesperson said of the nearly 785,000 refugees admitted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program since 9/11, "only about a dozen — a tiny fraction of one percent of admitted refugees — have been arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the U.S. None of them were Syrian."

William Darrow, Williams College professor emeritus of religion and Islamic studies, called the House vote "pure posturing."

The Paris attack, Darrow said, provides "an opportunity for extreme partisanship. Fear is always a great mobilizing force."

He added, "The larger question regarding immigration policy concerns the singling out of individual peoples, which we unfortunately have a long history of doing, from the Chinese exclusion to the exclusion of Jews during the second World War. It's a troubling history to be revisiting, but not unusual in American history."

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, also entered his voice into the immigration discussion as well in a statement last week.

"The safety of the American people will always be my top priority," Neal said. "That's why I favor the strict vetting protocols established by the Department of Homeland Security for those seeking asylum in the United States. These refugees now go through a screening process that takes up to 24 months and is done entirely overseas. And according to federal law enforcement agencies, not one Syrian refugee that has resettled in America has been arrested or removed on terrorist-related charges. But I also recognize there is a very serious humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, and the United States has a long history of accepting those from distant shores facing persecution. It's part of the core values and principles of our country was founded on."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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